Richard Billingham’s new film, Ray & Liz, is absolutely worth seeking out.
Director: Richard Billingham
Cast: Richard Ashton, Michelle Bonnard, Ella Smith, Tony Way, Justin Salinger
Release date: 8th March
Reviewer: Stephanie Watts
Photographer Richard Billingham makes his feature debut with Ray & Liz, a sensitive but hard-hitting portrayal of low income family life in the Midlands. Intercut with the lives of the titular Ray and Liz in the present day (Ray drinking homebrew alone in his room, Liz popping in to check up on him but living elsewhere), the film travels back in time to the dingy flat that was the Billinghams’ home, exploring family dynamics and modern British life that will resonate with many.
Billingham is probably best known for his portraits of his alcoholic father and chainsmoking mother in 1996 photo series Ray’s A Laugh, and here he brings the characters from those stills to life. Although Ray and Liz often remain as peripheral figures – leaving much of the centre stage open to the children who are left to their own amusements while their parents sleep off a particularly heavy hangover – whenever they appear on screen they feel like fully developed, complex characters, far from the media’s usual caricatured portrayal of working class people.
The film drifts along with a familiar, quiet energy. The camera is close to its subjects, but at the same time acts as a fly on the wall, bringing the audience unnervingly close to its characters, and to their life on the breadline. Billingham’s camera captures the same intense intimacy when in motion as his still images do; keeping everything in focus in the same style as his photographs, the family exist fully in the world of the film, the detailed set design helping the atmosphere feel complete.
Billingham doesn’t shy away from the more sour parts of life that come with living on a low income (or practically no income at all, as seems to be the case here) – one particularly shocking moment sees a poor drunken uncle violently beaten with a shoe by the frankly terrifying Liz – but he remains conscious in his treatment of the characters, especially those like 10-year old-Jason, the youngest sibling, who sees the full effect of neglectful parents.
Ray & Liz is a film that shouldn’t be shocking to British viewers living in a country where poverty levels have risen significantly in the past few years. But ultimately, it’s a deeply personal work that doesn’t shy away from reality, resulting in a reflective, beautifully shot family portrait.