London Film Festival: Ray and Liz

Writer and Director: Richard Billingham

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

The issue of poor parenting, neglect and poverty is a very difficult subject to address in a film, one that needs to be handled with sensitivity and considerable caution to avoid making broad-brush statements about class and wealth. Richard Billingham’s debut film Ray and Liz, a Film Festival new feature nominee, is a blistering examination of his early family life, demonstrating the deprivation of his childhood as well as the almost monster-like image of his mother.

Somewhere between Ken Loach and Andrea Arnold, Billingham’s film has the same feeling for and fascination with working-class life, while creating an almost sensory experience of grime, pain and distress in his filmmaking. There are frequent close-ups of grubby countertops deeply riven with filth, and a lack of care, of people’s lower faces as they drink or smoke with plenty of flies and bugs all over the various flats and homes we visit. The latter is reminiscent of Arnold’s American Honey(a 2016 Film Festival screening), which used a similar intrusion by the natural world to emphasise incipient poverty on a grand scale.

Billingham’s film is though a series of scenarios, more impressions of working-class life than a story with a linear narrative approach which demands much from its audience. Using the elder Ray’s lonely containment in a single room of a high-rise block as its frame, memories return to him as he lays in bed and drinks pop-bottles filled with home-brew.

There is a scene in which a luckless neighbour is coerced into getting drunk while babysitting Liz and Ray’s toddler Jay, followed by Liz cruelly beating the inebriated man with her shoe, the kind of casual violence that recurs throughout the film. Later, a slightly older Jay wanders alone around town, attends a bonfire party and sleeps rough in a woodshed over-night, none of which his parents seem to notice.

It is a tough film to enjoy, its episodic nature draws out the 108-minute run-time without quite providing a satisfying examination of what we see, how the scenes link together and the consequences for all involved. The fractured documentary style and apparent lack of repercussions make it difficult to find clarity in the experience of watching Ray and Liz, or what Billingham as a writer wants his audience to take away from it – it’s clearly not hope.

Either deliberately or inadvertently, what emerges instead is one domineering character, that of Liz, a beastly woman who does little but smoke and drink tea made for her by her hen-pecked husband. Ella Smith elicits not so much a dark side despite the sporadic violence, but a total lack of concern for the world beyond herself and zero empathy for anyone including her own children. Justin Salinger’s Ray stands silently by, just as culpable for indulging her and for never acting to stop his granite-hard wife.

Ray and Liz is a complex film and often brutal to watch. Billingham wants the audience to feel immersed in the world he recalls so vividly, using film to create a square aspect ratio, giving it the look of a series of 80s instant camera photos that probably really exist in the writer-directors attic. It clearly gives the impression of stepping back into the past, but if only it were clearer what it all means.

Release Date:  20 October 2018 

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