The Movie Waffler New Release Review - RAY & LIZ | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - RAY & LIZ

ray and liz review
Photographer Richard Billingham's squalid tribute to his parents.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Richard Billingham

Starring: Justin Salinger, Ella Smith, Tony Way, Richard Ashton, Michelle Bonnard, Sam Dodd 

ray and liz poster

Both Ray and Liz and Richard Billingham (the film’s auteur - remember them?!) have their roots in art photography. Billingham, shortlisted for the 2001 Turner Prize, has permanent collections of his photography at the Tate and the V&A. These galleries exhibit the initial images that would two decades later lead to Ray & Liz: photographs of Billingham’s working-class mum and dad, he a sad alcoholic, she a larger lady with tattoos. As a dry run, Billingham also shot the short film Ray, which also depicted his sot father. Oedipal, much? Or perhaps the raw material of Billingham’s work - grim presentations of lower-class life and ensuing mental illness - plays to a particularly keen type of rubberneck audience, who will find much to vicariously savour as Billingham’s thematic deja-vu extends to feature length miserabilism in the almost two-hour running time of Ray & Liz.

ray and liz review

Split into three time frames, this cinematic triptych depicts young Richard’s life, and the everyday misery of his lower socio-economic existence. In case we missed how grim the mise-en-scene is supposed to be across the various council-funded locations where the young boy (Richard’s brother Jason - Joshua Millard-Lloyd) spends dull-as-week-old-dishwater days, Billingham helpfully provides an extreme close up of a crawling insect every so often. Subtle Ray & Liz ain’t. Front and centre throughout the film, like escapees from a particularly off-colour Harry Enfield sketch, are the titular characters, the one never far from a bottle, the other sucking hungrily on a fag. It is fortunate that Billingham’s parents apparently suffered from such visibly adjectival debilitations as it saves the film providing developed characterisation. As an artist working mainly within a static medium, Billingham is trained to convey a totality of information in single images, and so what is initially constructed in the film’s first few minutes is what we get throughout. As the film continues, there are some more insects. We flick forward to an ancient Ray, who is bed bound and pissed up on homebrew. The kid throws something out of the window of a high rise and gets shouted out. The mother does a jigsaw and smokes some more fags.

ray and liz review

The period detail is sickeningly authentic, a faithfully sourced iconography of dial-up telephones and brown-flower wallpaper which is compounded by the 4:3 cinematography. The set design’s painstaking recreation of the early 1980s, that so-what fealty to authenticity, suggests that Billingham (and the BFI and Ffilm Cymru Wales, who partially funded Ray & Liz) feel that there is something worthwhile in and of itself of these two-dimensional representations. But in continuation of Billingham’s grounding in photography, Ray & Liz is a meagre display of character: a flattened-out depiction of a series of supposedly real-life events. There is no narrative through line, merely a shuffled re-showing of unfortunate events (in fact, the non-linear approach simply serves to add a layer of pseudo complexity to what is a deathly simple story). In lingering close ups we see Liz lighting up another fag, as if smoking a tab is an intrinsic symbol of social degradation. When adults communicate in Ray & Liz it is through a filter of profanity, with each naughty word especially enunciated, the theatrical conjugations of which reaching absurd inflections: "I’m asking you a FOOKIN question BOLLOCK BRAIN," Liz nonsensically shouts at Ray during one scene, causing unfortunate guffaws at my house. Are we being positioned to judge or pity these people? Either paradigm rests uncomfortably, as each is as patronising as the next. We shake our heads sadly at these poor, stupid people and ruminate upon how unfortunate, but grimly entertaining, their lives are.

ray and liz review

Throughout the film, the younger family members watch the telly, which more often than not features some sort of teatime show about a zoo (except for a scene where the kids seem to be watching Children of the Corn!) because just like the animals, these characters are trapped you see, etc. Extended conceit alert: at a certain point, one of the ubiquitous insects is captured in a jar, but then it escapes; perhaps to an enviable existence of gallery openings and international art prizes… Throughout Ray & Liz, with Liz’s Peacock’s fashion sense and brash language, I was inadvertently reminded of John WatersPink Flamingos, where Divine and co compete to be the Filthiest People Alive! For all its problematic aspects, Waters' film always expresses an affection for its characters, representations which are joyously non-judgemental. A culmination of two decades' parental fixation, Ray & Liz features no such reprieve. I just hope Mr. Billingham has finally got it out of his system.

Ray & Liz is in UK cinemas March 8th.

2019 movie reviews