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Ray & Liz review: 'Unexpectedly moving and graceful'

Richard Billingham’s debut feature is set in council houses and high rise flats on the outskirts of Birmingham 

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 07 March 2019 09:34 GMT
Ray & Liz - trailer

Dir: Richard Billingham; Starring: Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way. Cert 15, 108 mins

Richard Billingham’s virtuoso debut feature is set in council houses and high rise flats on the outskirts of Birmingham but it boasts as many animals and insects as you will find in the average natural history documentary. There are flies on lightbulbs, hamsters on wheels, budgies in cages, snails in boxes, a rabbit in a pram and even a few shots of giraffes at a very dilapidated-looking local zoo.

Billingham treats his human subjects in the same way as he does the animals. There are unflinching close-ups of them, stuck inside their homes. Parts of the film are very grim indeed, a chronicle of deprivation and misery. This is a portrait of a working-class family eking out an existence in the Midlands with very little money, no prospects and no control over their lives. In their impotence, they turn to alcohol and violence. You may find yourself looking away when an irate woman starts smashing the sharp edge of the heel of her shoe into the face of a comatose, drunken man or when a dog laps up the man’s vomit.

The director doesn’t skimp on the violence or the squalor but Ray & Liz is also filled with yearning. Like Terence Davies in his autobiographical films, Billingham is recreating the lost world of his childhood in a way which mingles disgust with nostalgia, terror with longing. He also somehow finds grace and humour in the most unlikely places.

This isn’t exactly kitchen sink realism. Parts of it are quite hazy. The drama appears to be set mainly in the 1980s and yet contains reference to the poll tax (Margaret Thatcher’s dreaded community charge) which wasn’t introduced in England until 1990. Although there is passing reference to Ray’s redundancy, we don’t learn what industry he worked in. The TV is constantly on, at least when the electricity is working, but it is never tuned into news programmes. We are given very little sense of the political context of the time other than that poverty and unemployment are rife.

Billingham is a Turner prize-nominated photographer and artist. His narrative style is elliptical. He focuses on specific moments in the lives of his protagonists rather than filling in all the details as to what left them in such a dire predicament.

Billingham continually frames Liz (Ella Smith), sewing or putting together pieces of enormous jigsaw puzzles (Rob Baker Ashton)

Ray (played as an old man by Patrick Romer) as first encountered here could be a character from one of those late Samuel Beckett plays starring Patrick Magee or Jack MacGowran. He is an old man alone in a room who passes the time drinking home-brewed beer and smoking cigarettes. His wife Liz has left but not divorced him and still turns up from time to time, feigning pity as she persuades him to hand over his benefits. He rarely ventures outside. It’s typical of Billingham’s approach that he can make even a scene of an ancient alcoholic sipping beer which he keeps in huge plastic bottles seem poetic. A ray of sunlight will suddenly illuminate the room or Ray will open the window to reveal patterns of clouds in the distance.

We are taken back in time to when Ray and Liz were a younger couple. Much of the first part of the film concerns a trip Liz makes to buy her son new shoes. While out, she leaves her toddler in the care of her brother-in-law, Lol (Tony Way). He is a cheery, overweight and very weak-willed figure who does an impressive imitation of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Lol means well but is easily led astray, especially if there is alcohol in the house. For reasons that quickly become apparent, he is terrified of the lodger, Will (Sam Gittins), a motorbike-riding delinquent with a horribly sadistic streak. Ray (played as a younger man by Justin Salinger) is equally scared of Liz but remains cravenly loyal to her.

The characterisation is very nuanced. Protagonists here can behave like monsters one moment and be objects of pity and tenderness for the filmmaker the next. The formidably large and abrasive Liz (Ella Smith) has “got a bit of Nazi in her”, we are told. If you drink her booze or abuse her trust, she will give you a good pummelling. Nonetheless, Billingham continually frames her, sitting in the corner of the front room, sewing or putting together pieces of enormous jigsaw puzzles, as if she is a near Madonna figure (albeit a chain-smoking one). She does the best she can for her kids. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, we see her spending her last few coins to make a call to scrounge some money for the electricity from an acquaintance who despises her.

Billingham isolates the tell-tale incidents as the family falls apart – the thud that a drunken man makes when he falls unconscious on the floor or the expression on the face of the shoe polish-smeared toddler brandishing the carving knife or the enormous jam sandwiches the kids eat and the secondhand cigarette stubs the adults smoke. When social services intervene, it makes matters worse. If a child is taken into care, that means the family’s benefits are reduced and it becomes yet more of a struggle to survive. The system treats them harshly and they are cruel to each other in turn.

The director isn’t judging his characters. Nor is he patronising them. Instead, he is observing them as they try and fail to make sense of their lives. Shot in grainy 16mm, the film doesn’t have much of a storyline but is unexpectedly moving and graceful in its depiction of this ill-fated family. The older son (based on Billingham himself) has the chance to get out of it all, but for Ray and Liz themselves, there is no escape.

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