Art imitates life in “Ray & Liz,” the autobiographical debut feature by Turner Prize-nominated artist Richard Billingham; that’s nothing new. But it’s the way art imitates, reflects and recomposes other art — specifically, Billingham’s much-discussed photography — that lends complex layers of memoir and mimesis to this singular spin on the British kitchen-sink drama, preserving both the director’s childhood and his creative evolution in gorgeous, grainy amber. Collating multiple visual and thematic preoccupations from the director’s fine-art oeuvre (notably his bleakly intimate portraiture of his working-class parents) and filtering them through the ingenious compositional eye of d.p. Daniel Landin, “Ray & Liz” is formally arresting and rigorous, though not at the expense of its direct emotional force. Commercially, this Locarno competition entry is an uncompromisingly hard sell, though festival bookings will come thick and fast.
Familiarity with Billingham’s photographic output is by no means vital to an appreciation of “Ray & Liz,” the chronologically drifting vignettes of which are sufficiently vivid and affecting to stand independently. That said, a rifle through his published 1996 collection “Ray’s a Laugh” does much to deepen one’s understanding of the film’s selective structure and peculiar point of view — a patient, probing gaze that sits halfway between cruel exposure and bittersweet affection.
That book gathered multiple stark, unflattering snaps of Billingham’s alcoholic father Ray and his inactive, tattoo-swirled mother Liz sinking squalidly into middle age in their cramped, decaying council apartment: a startling vision of British urban poverty that might have invited charges of exploitation if not for its disconcertingly personal perspective. That Billingham was putting his own commonly dysfunctional upbringing on display as shock-value spectacle to the metropolitan art scene — his photos were tellingly included in Charles Saatchi’s landmark 1997 exhibition “Sensation,” alongside provocations by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Marcus Harvey — seemed its own form of caustic class commentary.
“Ray & Liz” revisits this subject matter with painstaking verisimilitude. Actors Ella Smith, Deirdre Kelly, Justin Salinger and Patrick Romer give eerie, authentic life to the still images of his parents at different ages, production designer Beck Rainford recreates the smeary, trinket-infested havoc of the director’s family home with exhaustive attention to detail, while Landin (the gifted lensman behind “Under the Skin” and “The Yellow Birds”) seems even to fleetingly recreate certain tableaux from Billingham’s work amid the film’s nervous, queasy movement. However, the decision to shoot on 16mm, with a boxed-in Academy ratio, is a canny one, giving the film entirely its own aesthetic whilst retaining a tactile photographic quality.
Yet the effect of this disquieting reenactment is not ironic; the audience is not chided here for its horrorstruck looking. Rather, there’s a raw tenderness even to the film’s most ghastly displays of social inequality and parental neglect, the sense of an artist not merely documenting his past, but reckoning with it. Embracing narrative cinema enables Billingham to insert a version of himself (at two different stages of youth) into the display, lending proceedings a sense of self-reflection distinct from that of his photographs.
The film effectively comprises three potentially self-contained but starkly spliced shorts, each covering a different stage of his parents’ marriage: Taken together as a cumulative life study, the triptych isn’t heavy on narrative throughlines, but even the unexplained disconnects and absences from one to the next are implicitly rich in narrative. Set in the approximate present day, the first (presented on its own in 2016, under the title “Ray,” as a calling card to fund the rest of the feature) serves as a framing device from which the other two hang as extended flashbacks. In it, the older, mostly bedridden Ray (Romer), now living alone, whiles away his days staring out the window of his high-rise flat, drinking alarming amounts of dark, lethal-looking homebrew courtesy of a visiting neighbor, and waiting for occasional tough-love check-ins by Liz (Kelly), from whom he has separated.
It’s a despairing coda to the era depicted in “Ray’s a Laugh,” piling the loneliness of unattended old age onto a lifelong lack of privilege. The casting of Kelly, a non-pro with some degree of U.K. celebrity from the reality series “Benefits Street” and “Celebrity Big Brother,” as the seemingly (if only slightly) better-off Liz is a winking nod to prospects that have entirely passed him by. Meanwhile, Billingham and Landin zero in on such mundane visual minutiae as idle flies and blanket fibers, while Tracy Granger’s languid, routine-oriented editing underlines the sense of solitary life grinding to a halt.
The two flashback sequences are livelier by comparison, though scarcely more hopeful. Gallows humor of an especially inky hue marks the first, as the younger Ray and Liz (Salinger and Smith) take 10-year-old Richard (Jacob Tuton) out shopping, leaving their two-year-old youngest son Jason (Callum Slater) in the unreliable care of Ray’s mentally disabled brother Lol (Tony Way) — himself vulnerable to taunting manipulation by psychopathic lodger Will (Sam Gittins). Directed with unflinching, taut-wired dread, it’s a concentrated, claustrophobic one-act drama rife with life-or-death tension and concentric circles of abusive behavior; the infant Jason may survive it, but it’s no surprise, when we jump forward seven years, that he’s grown into a near-feral young terror with no instinct for self-preservation.
Played with exquisitely helpless bravado by the remarkable Joshua Millard-Lloyd, he emerges as the unlikely hero of the film’s third and most wrenching strand. Left to his own devices by his barely-conscious parents and the near-adult, escape-seeking Richard (Sam Plant), the kid finds comfort in crudely made pickle sandwiches, B-horror movies on TV and solo traipsing around the local zoo — weaving in another of Billingham’s recurring photography subjects, as the captive animals call the family’s cooped-up welfare dependency all too closely to mind.
That’s also a motif frequently favored by Andrea Arnold, whose impressionistic wanderings in society’s margins may be the closest cinematic forerunner to what Billingham (who, coincidentally enough, made a 1998 documentary short titled “Fishtank”) has achieved here. Any such comparisons, however, can only be superficial. For all its familiar trappings from a strong school of British social realism, “Ray & Liz” stands as a uniquely moving work of self-identification and self-illustration, bristling with pride, anger and even some regret — for the general ugly state of things, certainly, but perhaps for a family he’s come to see, and shoot, a little differently over the decades.