Ray & Liz Review

14th March 2019 3 Minute Read

Richard Billingham's stunning Ray & Liz opens at Queen's Film Theatre this week. Here is BBC Radio Ulster's Mike Catto's review.

Richard Billingham is not only a well known stills photographer of social environments and their inhabitants, he is also a Turner Prize nominated video artist whose work has been shown in major galleries around the world. Unlike the better known ‘social’ photographer Martin Parr who is enjoying a massive, and well deserved retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Billingham favours a much more intimate arena of subjects. He published a book of 170 photographs called Ray’s a Laugh in 1996 devoted entirely to his parents, Ray and Liz; their immediate circle and where they lived. He expanded the idea in 2015 into a single screen video ‘cine memoir’.

This new film is not a documentary. It is a feature length low key drama of Billingham’s personal recollections of his parents. Set from the early 1970s to the late 80s, it features Justin Salinger as the younger, more brash Ray and Pat Romer as the older, alcoholic Ray, with Ella Smith  as the younger Liz and Deirdre Kelly (‘White Dee’ from TV’s Benefit Street) as the older Liz. Tony Way is wonderfully cast as the ‘educationally impaired’ uncle Lol.

Don’t expect a conventional linear narrative. The visual style is contemplative, even static at times, while the domestic conversations are anything but. Given the period(s) in which it is set it, is not surprising that some of dialogue is sweary and even casually racist. The title of the original book, Ray’s a Laugh is ironic, because at times Ray is anything but funny. And yet at other times, and despite the squalid conditions in the two main locations, a small dreary terraced house and  a high rise flat, there are moments of real humour and tenderness. All the while, the children, young Richard and his brother Jason, are more than just observers. Richard even records some of the exchanges on a cassette machine.

Where, for me, this raw slice of a failing working class family really hits home in an original way is that the cinephotography and natural lighting elevate the mundane into something often beautiful and therefore sad, rather than condemnatory. Billingham has worked hand in hand with DOP Daniel Landin ( who did the superb and sometimes off-kilter camerawork for Under The Skin) to produce a stunning visual experience, shot in grainy 16mm, that links to Billingham’s own stills and video work but is not a replica.

There is a long sequence of Young Liz sewing by a window. Her comments are far from profound, but the framing makes it look like a Vermeer, giving her a certain dignity. Landin often focuses on one tiny detail such as a fly or a glass of dark home-brew, but one stylistic element anchors the whole film.

It begins with  dull yellow sunlight filtering through net curtains in the flat where the older Ray lies drunkenly. It ends with Ray, alone, in the same room at night, lit only by a vivid red from an old electric fire. I was genuinely moved by the whole BAFTA nominated film.

Thanks to BBC Radio Ulster for permission to reproduce this review. Mike Catto is BBCNI's The Arts Show’s resident film expert, Mike is a film critic, educator, and historian.