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Ray & Liz

Photographer Richard Billingham’s directorial debut is a starkly brutal yet beautiful memoir.


Richard Billingham first came to public prominence with the photo series "Ray’s A Laugh", which was part of Charles Saatchi’s notorious Sensation show in 1997 that included Damien Hirst and others. The series consisted of photos of Billingham’s poverty-stricken parents, Ray and Liz, who drank and smoked their lives away against the wallpapered and floral-patterned backdrop of their council estate. The raw, candid photos of "Ray’s A Laugh" raised questions of authenticity and exploitation, but nonetheless brought Billingham a degree of fame and notoriety, as well as a Turner Prize nomination.

As a decades-later follow-up to that series, RAY & LIZ pulls off a lovely bit of magic, bringing a human depth to the booze-soaked desperation of Billingham’s childhood without sacrificing any of its brutality and bleakness. The film is set in both the past and the present, and expands its focus beyond the eponymous couple to include both Billingham himself and, most pointedly, his younger brother Jason, who becomes the primary focus of the final third of the film. The family circle also expands to include Ray’s mentally disabled brother Lol, whose treatment at the hands of the family’s drifter-like lodger Will makes up the film’s extremely difficult-to-watch first act.

Billingham meticulously portrays the grime and grit of Thatcher-era public housing, moving from room to cramped room of the family’s apartment with a photographer’s sense of composition. In its most beautiful moments, the film (which is shot on 16mm) seeks out the quiet spaces between harsher scenes of neglect-bordering-on-abuse, unmitigated alcoholism, and desperate attempts to cobble together funds, meals, and (quite literally) cigarettes. These meditative moments are often filmed at floor level, or in extreme close-up, as if from a child's perspective. The numerous close-ups of hands, feet, shirtcuffs, pets, glasses of cider, smoke rising from cigarettes, and so on give a meditative beauty to the film, and suggest that if the adult world is closed-off and dead-end, the world of children still has room for beauty and curiosity.

The film’s sound design is both sumptuous and meticulous, particularly in the in-between shots of small domestic moments: haunting music from tinny radio speakers, the quiet splash of a glass being refilled, the crackle of a cigarette slowly burning down. In a brief, dreamlike sequence that comes right at the middle of the film, fireworks light up the night sky as Ray sleeps fitfully. He wakes briefly, then closes his eyes as the fireworks burst in reverse, tucking themselves back together and returning to earth. It’s an incredibly beautiful impressionistic reverie, which brings some moments of expansiveness to a film otherwise so delineated by dirty walls, dingy carpets, and gray concrete.

Coming over two decades after the photo series that spawned it, RAY & LIZ is much more than a moving-picture echo of its preceding series; it’s an impressively realized production that confronts the difficult questions of agency, class, guilt and innocence head-on

John Peck


Großbritannien 2018, 108 min
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Familiy History, Biography
Director: Richard Billingham
Author: Richard Billingham
DOP: Daniel Landin
Montage: Tracy Granger
Distributor: Rapid Eye Movies
Cast: Michelle Bonnard, Tony Way, Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Sam Gittins
FSK: 12
Release: 09.05.2019


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