Ray and Liz review: Richard Billingham steps effortlessly from great photography into the realm of great cinema, once again rendering beauty to his own difficult memories.
2018 turned out to be a good year for the art of remembering. Memoir-films and autobiographical screenplays made up the majority of the best of 2018. While Alfonso Cuaron continues to pick up accolades for Roma – a gorgeous glance back at his own Nanny’s life raising him and his siblings in Mexico’s Roma district – Lee Israel’s memoir became the much-lauded Melissa McCarthy feature Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Richard Billington got there first though. His book of photography ‘Ray’s a laugh’ was published in the nineties and pioneered, not the use of, but rather the unflinching inclusion of poverty and discomfort in British photography. Each picture is gorgeous; framed well, saturating the light, placing subjects in pleasing ways. The muses: his alcoholic father, Ray, his mother, Liz, and the council flat he grew up in with his brother in the Midlands. In his own words, he took them to capture and convey his own feelings about that time and place, and people, rather than continue to hide it from his peers. Not buried, but excavated, illuminated with glass and shutter speed and his gaze, re-working old sore sights into something within his own control.
Ray and Liz is essentially a flawless continuation, a sequel of sorts in the identical unique flavour of Billingham iconography. His work with BIFA winning producer Jacqui Davies and the set designers to emulate that memorable, realist tone has worked astoundingly well. Someone could easily flip the pages of Ray’s a laugh in front of their eyes before looking over at a screen showing Ray and Liz and barely feel the difference. That this would be such visually stunning film is unsurprising, but it is also a triumph in every other respect – moving, tragic, generous to all involved and written with deft strokes of comedy as well as darkness.
Three stories unfold. One, a pithy framing device, where an elderly Ray sits almost continuously alone for half a week in a single-bed flat and drinks away the hours with fortified ‘extra strong’ iron bru. The other two, he recalls hazily. The interruption of a friendly neighbour bringing him more bottles triggers a journey back to the day Ray’s ‘soft’ brother and Liz have a falling out over pilfered alcohol, culminating in Liz bestowing a terrible, darkly comedic beating in front of her sons. Later, fireworks outside the tower block as Ray drifts off to sleep take us back to the night his youngest son Jason bunks school, camps out at a friends bonfire and gets enfolded into the care system after his parents forgo searching for him for a night and day.
Billingham captures the power of sensory memories. It’s appropriate for a film that emphasises how sights, even unwanted ones, can be formative: the twitch of a fly’s antenna as it hovers around Ray’s glass, waxen wallpaper, a tapering stain of dog urine, all of this is ornately covered. The ordinary becomes extraordinarily meaningful. One effect has the fireworks swallow themselves back into sparks in the night sky as they turn back time in Ray’s mind, and a cherubic face — tabletop artwork peeling beneath the puzzle that Liz is busy with — cuts, breathtakingly, to a shot of Jason’s face, sleeping unnoticed in a shed.
Although there is sparse dialogue to contend with all this imagery, the actors make impact. Justin Salinger and Deirdre Kelly, as Ray and Liz respectively, are extra impressive, as is young newcomer Joshua Millard-Lloyd as a lost Jason. For titular roles, Salinger and Kelly are actually largely kept to the outskirts of the two central storylines, and move emotional mountains with tears and resigned glances as opposed to monologues. It seems to be more about the gaps in the spaces they should have been, a negligent silence where Ray and Liz, ’mother’ and ‘father’, go. It’s a gap made by addictions, mental ill-health and poverty, but a gap all the same.
When it really counted, neither Ray nor Liz could muster between them a lasting thought for the boys. But at least Billingham does.
The narrative’s heart, Richard and Jason, linger like a camera flashes. So, not at all. They’re there one minute and then, when we’re back with old Ray, they’re gone. The way Billington captures their (his own) time as part of a whole, imperfect, but deeply bound family is as momentarily vivid as the pressure of small fingertips against the window; fading impressions on a cracked surface.
So achingly effective are these episodes of the character’s turbulent, stifled lives that you will find yourself hoping for them, and for their futures, way past the last glimpse.
But, we do have Billingham himself, the greatest living indicator of how his on-screen miniature turned out. Because of this, the film is a beautiful reminder to keep hoping for the best.
Ray And Liz is released in cinemas on 8th March 2019.