Photographer and artist Richard Billingham makes his feature directorial debut with the bleak Ray & Liz. The concept was originally developed as part of his 1996 collection of photographic studies, ‘Ray’s A Laugh’. The collection reflected the poverty, neglect, alcoholism and squalor of the environment he and his younger brother grew up in. This film perfectly captures the painfully stark hard-drinking dad and the pained hard-smoking mother often featured in his autobiographical work.
The film starts with an older Ray (Patrick Romer) lying in a council-flat bedroom. He is a broken man, only getting up to smoke or drink a suspicious-looking home brew delivered by his neighbour. We only see the older Ray for a few scenes, but it’s enough to understand that he is a broken man living in poverty. Older Liz appears once and is pointedly played by Deirdre Kelly (White Dee from Channel 4’s controversial poverty porn Benefits Street).
The flashbacks show a younger but still hardened Ray and Liz (played by Justin Salinger and Ella Smith). Ray’s brother, Lol (Tony Way), has learning difficulties and finds himself getting bullied by a sociopathic lodger (Sam Gittins). In the second flashback, Ray and Liz’s youngest son Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) suffers hypothermia when he sleeps in a shed, unable to find his way home. These scenes are filmed in a flat emotionless manner, despite the difficult subjects. It feels like these memories are too painful for the director to fully connect with, so he films them from a distance, letting audiences make up their mind about the people.
There is not a second of Ray & Liz that isn’t difficult to watch. Both Lol and Jason are neglected by those who are supposed to look after them. The title characters, Ray and Liz, are largely absent from the flashbacks. Their absence from the lives of others is the cause of all the bad events that happen in the movie. The word depression is never mentioned, but there is a strong feeling that mental health problems sit on the periphery of the narrative. Liz may be a fierce matriarch, but there is a sense that she has an overwhelming sadness that affects her ability to care about those around her. Ray drinks too much and by his old age has nothing left but an unbranded plastic bottle of booze and a packet of cigarettes to cling onto. Billingham wants you to make your own mind up about the reasoning for their actions.
There is very little plot-wise going on. Ray drinks home brew and Liz does jigsaw puzzles. They hoard booze and complain money is always tight. When they’re not sleeping—a hobby of theirs—they are complaining about their finances. Ray & Liz concentrates on dramatising the space between spaces. Billingham remembers home as a selection of miserable stories, no structure, context or lessons in sight.
Whilst it doesn’t follow a concrete narrative, Ray & Liz is a moving portrayal of a family trying to stay above the poverty line. It’s a beautifully subtle flashback to the kitchen sink films of 50s and 60s cinema. The cinematographer, Daniel Landin (Under the Skin) works in 16mm for extra realism, every scene in their council house shot like a still photograph. The frequent cutaways to static images like a painting on the wall or a bird in a cage, can wear a little thin in an already slow-paced film. Production designer Beck Rainford brings to life the grimy carelessness of their world, littered with religious iconography and cluttered with bold prints.
Billingham doesn’t present this family as bad people, neither does he blame Thatcher-era Britain for their behaviour. The narrative totally detaches itself from circumstances. If you’re looking for an I, Daniel Blake style commentary on people living on welfare, or the poverty felt by many working class people in the 1980s you won’t find it here.
Ray & Liz may split audiences because it refuses to explain itself or the actions of its protagonists. Billingham is recreating his old memories without the rose tinted nostalgia. It could be easy to mistake the fictional feature with an observational documentary. Perhaps it’s a different version of poverty porn, every scene and character more miserable than the last. Unlike Ken Loach, there is no lightness, or humour to be found. A variation in tone would have been welcomed.
Ray & Liz is available on VOD on April 14th
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy