Recollections of a dysfunctional family
Some directors prefer to look back on their childhood in glorious 65mm monochrome, framing their memories on a broad canvas in front of millions of eyes on a streaming platform. Others, like famed British photographer Richard Billingham, focus on the dirty reality of their formative years, refusing to shy away from the problems that made life at home a living hell. His BAFTA nominated debut film is unflinching in its portrayal of the way he was raised by his parents, both of whom were alcoholics.
The Ray & Liz named in the title are Billingham’s depressed and neglectful father and mother. They have remained a focus throughout his artistic career, with photographs of his worn out, drunken father making up a collection that appeared alongside the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin in the infamous ‘Sensation’ exhibition back in the late 90s. Billingham’s drama also serves as a claustrophobic recreation of 70s and 80s Thatcherite Britain, with echoes of Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives vibrating in the background.
Building on his short film Ray, which was used to find funding for the feature length version and has been re-shot and used here, Billingham’s photographic sensibilities come to the fore with three shorts that are stitched together to form a narrative whole. The small details inform his storytelling, be it the dirt ridden floor and peeling wallpaper, or the constant fag smoke and glowing gas-fire grills. But there is nothing sentimental about any of these character portraits which are shot in grainy 16mm by DP Daniel Landin, a regular collaborator with Jonathan Glazer.
It begins with an old, lonely and rundown version of his father (this iteration being played by Patrick Romer) drinking himself into oblivion in a high rise council flat. Ray is never seen outside of his bedroom and seems to spend every day drinking three bottles of homemade booze given to him by his neighbour, only occasionally stopping to smoke a roll-up, look outside the window, or crash back to sleep. There’s no change to the routine and his only interaction with the outside world is occasional visits from Liz (Benefit Street’s Deirdre Kelly) and brief conversations with his neighbour.
We head back to Ray’s younger days (now played by Justin Salinger) living with Liz (Ella Smith) and his two sons, 2-year-old Jason (Callum Slater) and 10-year-old Richard (Jacob Tuton). First we see the child-like Uncle Lol (Tony Way) getting tricked into knocking back Ray and Liz’s hidden stash of booze while they are out shopping. Then we leap into the 80s where Jason is now 9 and Richard 17, living in a high-rise tower block. While their parents sleep off last night’s drink, the kids are left to their own devices. Meanwhile, there’s dog pee on the floor, no money for heating, and Jason is free to spend the night away from home without his parents even noticing.
Billingham’s focus is as much about the paraphernalia and residue of his memories as it is the drama. Landin frames each segment inside a 1.37:1 ratio, crystallising the time and place these moments exist in. Animals were a strong feature of Billingham’s early photographic work which comes from the many pets he was around as a child. One scene shows Ray and Liz wandering through their local park pushing a pram. We’re given a peak inside where the family rabbit is cosily tucked up, getting more love and attention than any of their kids ever received.
There isn’t much judgement coming from behind the camera, where Billingham is happy to show his childhood for what it was, without demonising his parents. There’s a sense of empathy shown towards them as if he now sees how miserable they were in their own existence. However, both the film’s fragmented structure and brief snapshots of his family home make it difficult to fully enclose ourselves within the squalid realism of his world.
Each story requires a change of character focus, which asks us to start from scratch to find a connection with their lives. While we know these are the same people at different stages of their lives it’s difficult to piece them together as a whole. The film clearly demonstrates why Billingham’s childhood has informed so much of his artistic career, but it proves a little harder to find a way to empathise with it.
Ray & Liz opens in UK cinemas on March 8th.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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