Ray & Liz

Ray & Liz
Ray & Liz
Directed by Richard Billingham​
Starring Ella Smith, Deirdre Kelly, Justin Sallinger, Michelle Bonnard, Tony Way, James Eeles, Sam Gittins, James Hinton, Andrew Jefferson-Tierney and Patrick Romer
In UK Cinemas March 8th, 2019

by Bernie C Byrnes

Ray & Liz is written and directed by Turner Prize nominated photographer and artist Richard Billingham. Now nominated for Outstanding Debut at this year’s BAFTA Awards, Ray & Liz revisits the figures of Billingham’s early photographs, which originally formed part of Charles Saatchi’s YBA exhibition ‘Sensation’ with Damien Hirst et al. Both the photographs and the film focus on Billingham’s alcoholic father Ray; his mother Liz; and his younger brother Jason through a series of family vignettes showing life growing up in a Black Country council flat.

It’s certainly authentic. I lived in a council flat on the 9th floor in the West End of Newcastle upon Tyne back in the 90s and the film made me feel like I was back there. I could practically smell it. The sets, the costumes, the performances, even the lighting perfectly recreate that time in the (not so distant) past. Children are neglected, animals are mal-treated, life is pointless and no one is prepared to take responsibility. It is an undeniably potent evocation of the time, with an impressive and powerful aesthetic, but falls short even as a docudrama by posing no questions and attempting no answers. There is scant narrative and even less attempt to understand anyone or anything.

Ray & Liz deals with the pointlessness of existence but is itself pretty pointless. Much like Waiting for Godot, nothing happens. Whether that is intended to be the genius of it (a BAFTA nomination is not to be sniffed at), or just poor storytelling is very hard to say. The action is highly personal but not extraordinary and left me feeling like someone had mildly over-shared after one too many down the social club. With dramas like Nil By Mouth and Made in Britain getting this sort of genre spot on, Ray & Liz disappoints. I guess if you weren’t there, or belong to a different socio-economic class, the film may be enlightening but only as a depressing curio, like the scene in the film of Dudley zoo where exotic animals are miserably marooned in cramped conditions amid graffiti under a cloudy sky.

The film presents a family in dire straights but with nothing unusual about them. Alcoholism, dog-end rollies and white bread were (and still are) the way of life for millions of people. The most depressing thing about Ray & Liz is that their lives on benefit in a council flat, deprived and hopeless as it is, is comparative luxury compared to how many people struggle to survive now.

Relentlessly miserable.


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