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Photographer and artist Richard Billingham makes his feature-directing debut with the bleak Ray & Liz. It was developed from earlier video works and his 1996 collection of photographic studies, entitled Ray’s a Laugh, after the old Ted Ray radio comedy. They were stark, uncompromisingly painful shots of his hard-drinking dad, Ray, and hard-smoking mum, Liz, and originally formed part of Charles Saatchi’s YBA exhibition Sensation with Damien Hirst et al.
Ray and Liz were, of course, depressed – not a diagnosis we were encouraged to make back in the ironic Cool Britannia 90s. This film version makes it clearer and expands the images’ implications into grim and sometimes funny vignettes, fragments of a fragmented family life. The whole film is like an incomplete fragment, intriguing if frustrating.
Patrick Romer plays Ray as an old man, living in one room of a council flat that we will later realise was home to his family. He is all alone, like a BS Johnson or Samuel Beckett character, listening to Radio 4, and the echo of Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives is surely deliberate. Poor Ray subsists on a liquid diet, the dodgy home brew brought round by his mate Sid, and on his memories.
We flash back to Ray and Liz in Dudley in the early 80s. Ray is a sharp-faced, worried-looking guy played by Justin Salinger (who recently played the ill-fated 60s yachtsman Donald Crowhurst in Simon Rumley’s film.) Ray’s redundancy money, plus benefits and subletting a room, supports the family. Ella Smith plays his wife, the tattooed Liz, endlessly smoking (although so is everyone else), and ruminatively doing her jigsaws and sewing patches and names of heavy metal bands on to denim. Their dodgy young lodger, Will (Sam Gittins), is the metalhead, a nasty piece of work given to bullying Ray’s brother Lol (Tony Way), who has learning difficulties – as no one used to say in the 1980s.
Their two boys are Richard and Jason, and when they have grown into their teens we see that the family have been moved out of their dilapidated terrace and into a forbidding high-rise block, the same block into which Ray will eventually retreat into a single room. The kids are up to all sorts of delinquent mischief, but Richard is the studious one while Jason is going off the rails. Yet it is Jason who is to provide the film’s heartrending emotional breakthrough, staying out all night away from what might be called the family home, sleeping in the garden shed belonging to the family of his mate. It is to lead to the inevitable intervention of the school and social services, and the first step towards the older Ray’s catastrophic loneliness.
Ray & Liz has many image madeleines: big old-fashioned Lego blocks, the milk pan, the gas-fire grill glowing orange, the old payphones with slots for 2p and 10p, the ubiquitous ashtrays with cigarettes emitting the silky thread of smoke. Even Jason’s headmaster has a cigarette going. People sometimes watch TV, but without the addictive dedication they might in a later age devote to smartphones. It’s all very redolent of a past recalled without sentimentalism. But the contrast with Davies’ work is instructive. In Distant Voices, Still Lives there was sweetness to go with the cruelty; there was some community spirit and pub singsongs. Not here. Ray and Liz are marooned, cut off from everyone and cut off from each other.
This is a tough film to watch, at once claustrophobic and open-ended or unfinished, leaving the audience with questions. It’s a brutal study of a family coming to pieces.
Source: The Guardian
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