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Richard Billingham | Ray & Liz

Richard Billingham | Ray & Liz

[…] Both settings are distinct from one another by the long, quiet, almost static pacing of the former and the extreme rituals and splashes of sudden, unsettling humour that infuse the latter, and it only confirms the director’s fine-tuned sense of place, time and of psychological dynamics both within and between characters that he manages to intertwine both these worlds without ever losing sight of beauty that lies even is the gloomiest of settings.

[…] What remains is Billingham’s film, a selection of memories told in fragments, that allows for some delicate, thoughtfully textured moments of reflection combined with a hint of raw, unflinching drama and narration.

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When a Turner-Prize nominated photographer turns to feature filmmaking, one might expect a clear sense of framing and composition, but hardly anything prepares you for the misery that speaks out of almost every single shot in Richard Billingham’s debut feature Ray & Liz, which is playing in competition at this year’s Locarno Festival. The celebrated artist has crafted a deeply grim yet compelling and visually haunting scenario of life at the margins of society that is hard to bear in places but, ultimately, lingers in the mind long after viewing.

The film takes its inspiration from Billingham’s already celebrated photo series of his parents – Ray and Liz – and troubled childhood spent in Thatcher-era Birmingham. The images were first presented as part of the “Sensation” group exhibition in 1997, a controversial showcase of the hottest young British artists at the time. However, seeing Billingham’s photos now brought to life on the big screen through his very own meticulous eye for detail adds a whole new layer to the art on display.

The events unfold in two timelines between 1990, which sees Ray living a lonely and crushingly empty life in a rundown tower block in the Cradley Heath council estate on the outskirts of Birmingham, and a decade or so earlier when he still shared poverty and misfortune with his heavily tattooed wife Liz and their two children. Both settings are distinct from one another by the long, quiet, almost static pacing of the former and the extreme rituals and splashes of sudden, unsettling humour that infuse the latter, and it only confirms the director's fine-tuned sense of place, time and of psychological dynamics both within and between characters that he manages to intertwine both these worlds without ever losing sight of beauty that lies even is the gloomiest of settings. What’s more, these carefully selected vignettes of Billingham’s father and his own troubled childhood carry a truth in them that always comes to light when the director is less concerned with visual perfection and rather focuses on emotional veracity and intimacy.

Shot by cinematographer P Daniel Landin, who was previously responsible for creating an otherworldly black-opal shimmer Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, the first image of a fly circling a shabby light bulb sets the tone for the despair there is to come. As we meet the elderly Ray (Patrick Romer) pouring down a glass of home brew from bottles brought to him by his neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton) it soon becomes clear that alcohol has been the only reliable and lasting relationship in his shattered life. It’s the same old hooch he would share with Liz (Ella Smith) back in the old days, while sitting at the kitchen table, smoking and barking at each other over the misery of their existence. But there were happier, or at least less gloomy times too, when there was still redundancy money to spent on shoes for the kids and fine alcohol from the supermarket around the corner. In one extended episode the film shows Ray’s slow brother Lol (Tony Way) who is tricked into helping himself to the booze in the Billingham home by their eldest son Will (Sam Gittens), a rebel with no cause or concern other than to frame his uncle and wait for his no-bullshit mother to give the poor chap a beating.

Things go from bad to worse, however, when the youngest, Jason, finally escapes his nightmare family after the electricity gets cut off yet again during one chilly Guy Fawkes Night in the Eighties. At first, his parents are not too bothered by him not to return home, in fact, they hardly notice it at all. However, when Jason is taken away from them and placed in a foster home as the result of their bad parenting, their guild and grief cuts deep – if not for losing the boy, but for the amount of child-care allowance that goes with him.

What remains is Billingham’s film, a selection of memories told in fragments, that allows for  some delicate, thoughtfully textured moments of reflection combined with a hint of raw, unflinching drama and narration. Arguably one of the most visually arresting and carefully composed examples of British kitchen sink in quite some time, Ray & Liz is a film that slowly creeps up on you before luring you in completely with considerable subtlety.

Text: Pamela Jahn | Audio/Video: Ruth Baettig

First published: August 24, 2018

Ray & Liz | Film | Richard Billingham | UK 2018 | 108’ | Locarno Festival 2018

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