Ray & Liz – Film Review by Aisling Foster
Written and directed by Richard Billingham
Stars: Richard Ashton, Jamie-Lee Beacher, Michelle Bonnard
If you find images of real life depressing, then the in-your-face realism of Ray and Liz is not for you. There’s no old fashioned escapism here. Only wonderfully made scenes of Thatcher’s down-and-out Britain and a script as good as anything George Orwell might have attempted, but with a touch more humour.
Set in the Black Country, this is the work of photographer, Richard Billingham, whose student studies of life with his alcoholic parents in 1996 shot him to fame as a gilded member of the Young British Artists group. Those stills, and a later series on the same theme, told a lifetime of unfinished human stories from childhood to middle age. There, as if mesmerised by the death throes of British industry, two dazed children and their hopeless parents seem stuck in a place where the lights of working class certainties are being switched off one by one.
Now, after a spell as a landscape photographer, Billingham has returned to his original theme. And in allowing Ray and Liz to move and speak, their peculiar blindness to their son and his camera – or to anyone else he captured back then within the frame of their ghastly lives – is explained in perfectly edited detail. Clearly, these are not abusive parents; they are uncaring, oblivious to any responsibility or need except a next drink or cigarette. So, after a section in which Ray’s dole and their terrace house has been blown on alcohol (oh those heart stopping scenes of the toddler, Jason, being handed a kitchen knife or the look on a young dog’s face when screamed at to “Remember what happened to your mother!”) a high rise council flat becomes a prison where the two boys, now a studious teenager and a feral ten year old, dodge around the zonked adults and a menagerie of neglected pets.
Daniel Landin’s cinematography goes in hard, gazing like a child on mouths which gulp greedily on smoke or drink, lingering on the folds of Liz’s hugely swollen ankles. The effect is fearful, uncertainty heightened by a pitch perfect sound track which builds to a climax in Jason’s wild winter night spent outdoors. That experience brings a kind of salvation. But when the teenage Billingham asks the social worker if he, too, might be fostered, he is informed he will soon be old enough to get out: “So focus on that.”
Right to the end, love is denied. We do not know what happened to Jason. But watching the aged Ray’s face soften as he mouths the words of Dusty’s ‘Some Of Your Lovin’ is a hint of humanity lost. Perhaps, one day, Billingham will tell that story, too.