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Turner Prize-nominated British artist Richard Billingham makes an adept transition from still photography to cinema with Ray & Liz, an intensely observed narrative feature that draws deeply from Billingham’s previous work. Above all, its key antecedent is his acclaimed mid-1990s series of snaps of his alcoholic dad Ray, chain-smoking mom Liz and younger brother Jason, who was taken into care when he was 11. The images of them were at one point collected in a book called Ray’s a Laugh. Some featured in the notorious Sensation exhibition, the show that also included such headline-grabbing works as Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, Tracey Emin’s tent embroidered with the names of everyone she’d ever slept with and Marcus Harvey’s controversy-stirring portrait of child-murderer Myra Hindley. Years on, it could be plausibly argued that Billingham’s surreal but striking and very raw contributions hold up better than many of the more outlandish works shown back then by his shoutier, more attention-seeking contemporaries.
Both in the older photographs and this new film, it’s impossible not to feel somewhat horrified by the chronic alcoholism, parental neglect and appalling standards of hygiene on display, as well as titular mom Liz’s high kitsch, Jeff Koons-ian taste in tchotchkes, all depicted with a clinical, unblinking eye.
But this ain’t no Ken Loach film. There’s no preachy author’s message here about how it’s all society or the government’s fault. Billingham’s perspective is much more inscrutable, arguably closer to Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) with her insider’s feel for working-class culture. Throughout both this film and Billingham’s earlier photographs, there is a palpable sense of affection and respect for the subjects, for their warmth and endurance, while still recognizing their inescapably grotesque qualities. Like the zoo animals that Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) visits in the film, a sequence that calls back to another photographic series by Billingham, and the many domestic pets the family owns that feature both here and in the early work, the people we are observing in Ray & Liz are like zoological exhibits, housed in facsimiles that mimic their “natural” environments. And like animals kept in cages, these human creatures in their crummy public-housing apartments exhibit the class stress signs of entrapment: self-harming, violence and verbal aggression. One of them even tries to escape the compound.
Ray & Liz is effectively a triptych made up of three shorts spliced roughly together, one of which, Ray, was released on its own and used to crowdfund financing for the feature. The bleakest component by some distance, it focuses through extra tight close-ups and long-held shots on an older, ruined version of Ray (Patrick Romer) as he goes about his daily routine: wake up, drink homebrewed beer brought by neighbor Sid (Richard Ashton), stare out the window of his seaside room, rinse and repeat. It’s a mystery as to whether Ray even visits the bathroom. At one point he receives a visit from his cranky, estranged wife Liz (non-professional Deirdre, aka “White Dee” Kelly, who became famous in the U.K. for appearing on the reality shows Benefits Street and Celebrity Big Brother), who now lives on her own.
The second sequence flashes back to Ray and Liz in younger days (now played by Justin Salinger and Ella Smith, respectively). Back then, their world was literally bigger than one room, occupying as they did a rundown tenement house in a Midlands town, not far from Birmingham, England, along with their two sons, 10-year-old Richard (Jacob Tuton) and 2-year-old Jason (Callum Slater). On this particular day shown, Ray, Liz and Richard go out shoe shopping, leaving simple-minded Uncle Lol (Tony Way) to mind Jason. However, the Billingham’s tenant Will (Sam Gittins), whose baby-faced good looks disguise a Mephistophelian personality, persuades Lol to raid the family’s stash of hard liquor. When Ray and Liz get home, they find Lol lying passed out next to a pool of vomit and little Jason playing with a kitchen knife, a sequence both disturbing and oddly comical.
The last stretch unfolds some seven years later and features Millard-Lloyd as a 9-year-old Jason and Sam Plant as a teenage Richard, the latter only passing through the action briefly. The family is now living in a cramped tower-block no less encrusted than the last home with peeling wallpaper and discarded bottles, which the people and various animals pick their way through gingerly. With Liz and Ray near comatose every morning in bed, Jason fends for himself on a diet of white bread wrapped around pickled red cabbage from a catering-sized jar. An excursion to watch the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night (an annual autumn event in Britain) offers an escape from the claustrophobic confines of the apartment and leads to an intervention from neighbors and the authorities to safeguard this vulnerable youngster.
DP Daniel Landin, whose contribution to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin was no less remarkable than his sensuous work here, films the proceedings on 16mm stock in a boxy Academy ratio that recalls the mid-’90s vibe of Ray’s a Laugh without aping those photographs’ trademark roughness. Billingham’s original pictures of Ray, Liz and Jason, unlike his hyper-crisp landscapes and other work elsewhere, are often out of focus, over- or under-exposed. They look like random almost amateur snapshots, although as a body of work they cohere through curation and selection, each one hinting at a separate short story in themselves, like Nan Goldin’s photographs. Some of that mystery and sense of plenitude is lost in the translation to moving pictures here, and one senses that Billingham is not always at ease with the narrative demands of filmmaking. But his startling eye for the common made strange is very visible here, and hard not to hope that he’ll make further forays into filmmaking after this very auspicious debut with a work that feels so close and true to his earlier material. There is a finality to Ray & Liz, like the sound of a book closing.
Production: A BFI, Ffilm Cymru Wales, CBC presentation in association with Severn Screen, Rapid Eye Movies of a Primitive Film production
Cast: Justin Salinger, Ella Smith, Patrick Romer, Deidre Kelly, Tony Way, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Callum Slater, Jacob Tuton, Mary Helen Donald, Sam Plant, Roscoe Cox, James Eeles, Jason Billingham, Sam Dodd, Kaine Zajaz, Joe Holness, Michelle Bonnard, Scot Stevens
Director-screenwriter: Richard Billingham
Producers: Jacqui Davies
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Adam Partridge, Ed Telfan
Director of photography: Daniel Landin
Production designer: Beck Rainford
Costume designer: Emma Rees
Editor: Tracy Granger
Music supervisor: Becca Gatrell
Casting: Shaheen Baig
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (International competition)
Sales: Luxbox Films
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