Turner Prize-nominated artist Richard Billingham turns his hand to filmmaking with an overwhelmingly personal, intricately observed depiction of his troubled upbringing and neglectful parents. This remarkably assured debut feature was born out of Billingham’s single-screen video artwork Ray and his acclaimed 1996 photography book Ray’s a Laugh, which captured his poverty-stricken domestic life with uncompromising honesty. Shot beautifully on 16mm, Ray & Liz proves just as candid and heralds Billingham as a unique cinematic voice.
The narrative unfurls through several vignettes and snapshots of Billingham’s childhood. We begin on an act that frames the other two set pieces – Ray (Patrick Romer) is a bedridden, old man whiling away the reminder of his life by staring out the window of his council flat and getting drunk by 9am on home-brewed beer. We then flashback to the early 80s where a younger Ray (Justin Salinger) and chain smoking Liz (Ella Smith) occupy a decaying terrace house just outside of Birmingham with their 10-year-old Richard (Jacob Tuton) and two-year-old Jason (Callum Slater). This strand takes a particularly grim turn when Ray’s mentally disabled brother Lol (Tony Way) is tasked with babysitting Jason. Lol is soon led astray by devious sub-letting lodger Will (Sam Gittins) and finds himself on the receiving end of Liz’s violent temper.
Seven years later and the family have moved out of their terrace house into an equally dilapidated high-rise apartment. Ray and Liz have become complete layabouts wallowing in their own decay while completely neglecting the basic needs of their children. Focusing on Richard’s younger brother Jason, this segment sees the film at its most hopeful yet heartrending when 10-year-old Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) is taken in by some friendly neighbours after spending a night on the streets.
Despite its moral bleakness, Ray & Liz is beautifully filmed by cinematographer Daniel Landin, whose previous work on Under the Skin was just as impressive. Shot on gorgeously grainy 16mm film, Landin’s exquisite cinematography perfectly captures the squalor of council housing in 1980s Britain. Alongside Beck Rainford’s extraordinarily detailed production design and Joakim Sundström’s evocative sound design, Billingham brings his west-midlands upbringing to vivid life.
While Ray & Liz may be skimpy on plot, its multi-faceted set of characters lifts the film’s slower moments. Salinger and Kelly put in brilliant turns as Ray and Liz respectively. They’re clearly selfish, neglectful, often unloving individuals, but thanks to impressive character work and Billingham’s clear respect for his real-life parents, the film develops a compelling undercurrent of empathy for the pair. Elsewhere, newcomer Millard-Lloyd’s exceptionally mature, layered performance provides the film with its emotional core. The manner in which he conveys years of pain, neglect and abuse with just a few subtle facial expressions is remarkable. He also injects some much needed humour and charm to proceedings, particularly in one light-hearted moment involving Jason, Ray and a spoonful of chilli powder.
Ray & Liz can be unflinchingly grim, but it’s tinged with a tenderness and compassion that has a longer-lasting impact. Billingham has crafted a breathtakingly honest and deeply moving portrait of his dysfunctional, poverty-stricken family.