×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Ray & Liz’

Celebrated photographer Richard Billingham reformats a host of his formal and thematic obsessions in his first feature, a rare and remarkable cine-memoir.

Director:
Richard Billingham
With:
Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Patrick Romer, Deirdre Kelly, Tony Way, Sam Gittins

1 hour 48 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Ray & Liz'

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, July 26, 2018. (In Locarno Film Festival — International Competition.) Running time: 108 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Primitive Film production. (International sales: Luxbox, Paris.) Producer: Jacqui Davies.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Richard Billingham. Camera (color, 16mm): Daniel Landin. Editor: Tracy Granger.

With: Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Patrick Romer, Deirdre Kelly, Tony Way, Sam Gittins

More Film

  • Jack Ryan

    Richard Rutkowski on ‘Jack Ryan,’ Costa-Gavras and Being Nice Abroad

    TORUN, Poland – Speaking at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival on Monday, Richard Rutkowski praised the work of Costa-Gavras, offered sage advice for filmmakers working internationally, and offered a glimpse of the fast-paced work faced by cinematographers on high-profile TV series. Rutkowski, whose credits include “Jack Ryan,” “Castle Rock” and “The Americans,” discussed the methods, [...]

  • 'Honeyland' DP on Low-Fi Shooting With

    'Honeyland' DP on Low-Fi Shooting With High-Powered Storytelling

    Filming the Sundance-awarded “Honeyland” in a remote North Macedonia locale without roads or electricity, it was easy to get lost, confesses cinematographer Fejmi Daut. “It was too hard to decide what would be the storyline in the beginning,” said the debut DP, speaking at the 27th EnergaCamerimage cinematography festival in Torun, Poland. The editing process [...]

  • Q A_Joker_Lawrence-Sher_CKK-Jordanki_fot-Maria-Kowalska_11

    'Joker’ Cinematographer on Joaquin Phoenix’s Transformative Performance

    TORUN, Poland – “Joker” cinematographer Lawrence Sher received a rockstar welcome at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival on Monday as attendees struggled to squeeze into a standing-room only conference room for a lively and in-depth Q&A session on the making of the box office sensation. Sher appeared equally excited to be at the event. “Obviously [...]

  • Igor Drljaca, Agata Smoluch Del Sorbo

    Verve Signs 'Disappearance at Clifton Hill' Director Albert Shin (EXCLUSIVE)

    Verve has signed Albert Shin, the director of the buzzy new thriller “Disappearance at Clifton Hill,” Variety has learned. Distribution rights for the film were recently acquired by IFC Midnight and the movie is expected to open in February. “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” debuted at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It centers on a [...]

  • John Bailey

    John Bailey Urges Cinematographers to Embrace Story Over Technology

    It’s safe to say John Bailey does not miss the trappings of the president’s office at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Speaking at a retrospective celebrating his five decades of cinematography work at Poland’s EnergaCamerimage festival, where Bailey will be honored with a lifetime achievement award this week, he told an audience [...]

  • Justin Bieber Cupid Movie

    Justin Bieber Debuts First Look at 'Cupid' Movie

    Beware of cupid’s arrow. Justin Bieber unveiled a first-look photo for “Cupid,” his upcoming animated movie from Mythos Studios. The image sees a cartooned Bieber, who will voice the god of love, on the side of a cliff with the sun setting in the background. “Cupid” will tell the story of the eponymous mythical being [...]

  • Robert De Niro

    Robert De Niro to Receive SAG Life Achievement Award

    Robert De Niro will be honored with a SAG life achievement award. The legendary actor, who currently stars in Netflix’s “The Irishman” and Warner Bros.’ “Joker,” will receive the performers’ union’s top accolade at the 26th annual SAG Awards on Jan. 19 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The award is given annually to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content