Bleak and brilliant, Ray & Liz opens with scenes from a fly-infested council-flat bedroom where a man resides – sleeping, smoking, drinking, but never leaving. He passes the time looking out the window and listening to the radio. This is Ray, alcohol-dependant and isolated. These scenes make up one third of Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz – the artist and Turner Prize-nominee’s feature debut. This particular segment was originally shot several years ago by the artist – a short film and art piece, simply entitled Ray (2015). For Ray, the days run into one another, the only structure coming in the form of a daily delivery of home-brew from a neighbour. We come back to Ray intermittently throughout the rest of the film, the remaining majority of the feature seeming to be recollections and memories of a lonely, sickly man staring out of a dingy window. The rest of the film is reconstructions from the director’s own childhood – scenarios filled with neglect, poverty and chaos for both Richard and his younger brother Jason. Ray & Liz is a devastating yet sensitive retelling of the family and lives Billingham originally captured in photographs back in 1995. The photographs went on to be published as a series, Ray’s A Laugh. For the most part, a young Billingham is a spectator to the distressing goings on in his childhood home. Most of the behaviour has a more direct effect on his younger brother Jason – in the first instance, as a toddler and then as a young boy of about eight or nine.
Much like his original documenting of the family, Richard sits outside, looking in – slightly older and therefore less vulnerable than Jason. It is the striking and almost entirely silent performance from Joshua Millard-Lloyd as Jason that forms the film’s emotional core. The youngest of the family, he spends much of his free time alone, making his own questionable sandwiches, seeking comfort in his snail collection and finding warmth only next to the flames at a friend’s bonfire gathering. At the centre of all three stories are parents living in destitute, chain smoking the days away. Liz is a furious, cold, jigsaw-obsessed woman whilst Ray is an alcoholic; not as cold or furious but still emotionally and paternally absent. Yet, just like the original photographs, this portrait is unexpectedly tender. Deep beneath layers of smoke and squalor are two individuals as alone as their children and unable to make ends meet in both Thatcher’s Britain and the Black Country during the 1980s. Ray & Liz is reminiscent of Terence Davies’ own autobiographical outing, Distant Voices, Still Lives but here there is less hope and much more loneliness. The film is shot beautifully, with close ups and lingering shots really cementing us in time and place. Billingham has pulled back the curtain to reveal a claustrophobic childhood riddled with neglect and filth. It’s not a particularly joyous experience but certainly one that leaves an impression. It’s a sincere and impressive accomplishment for an artist turned filmmaker who has treated a difficult subject incredibly humanely.
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