Film Review: Ray & Liz

Sensational – in its own way.

Richard Billingham first made his own family the central core to his art back in 1996 when along with the Tracy Emin’s unmade bed, Marcus Harvey’s Myra Hindley picture and Damien Hirst’s shark, British art became the pinnacle of cool in ‘Sensations’.

Unit Still for Ray & Liz

Billingham’s book was made up of candid photographs of his parents at home surrounded by home-brew, jigsaws and flying cats. The photos were grotesque, intimate and beautiful. They were snapshots of life seen not through rose tinted glasses, but the lens of a would be war photographer trapped inside a West Midlands council flat. Despite the books success, Billingham has kept a fairly low profile since and some 20 years later he is returning again to his favourite muse, his family.

Ray and Liz takes the book a stage further and is split between flashbacks of Richard’s younger family life and older Ray living alone in one room of the flat they all once shared together. The film is actually more a series of vignettes than an actual linear plot, but is strangely compelling and never boring. Justin Sallinger as (young) Ray inhabits his character with an unapologetic coldness, meanwhile, Michelle Bonnard as Liz conveys a brooding and violent realism to her role that is more about what she doesn’t say that what she does. The kids too are so natural you dont feel like they are ‘acting’ for a second.

In some ways there are some similarities with Gary Oldman’s ‘Nil by Mouth’, both movies are brutally honest and unflinching memoirs of troubled families but while Oldman’s story is more expansive, Ray & Liz is beautifully observed, focusing on the minutiae of dysfunctionality in a world before the Internet, Mobile phones or Satellite TV and where the kids weren’t so much as an afterthought, more like a forgotten thought.

What drew me into the film was Billingham’s ability to capture the little details of his childhood that resonated with my own. The three-bar electric fire, the budgie, the video nasties, the big jar of beetroot and the public phone box. In the age of larger than life, comic book movies, the cinema has predominately become a place to escape reality and in that respect Ray & Liz isn’t a popcorn movie that will appeal to the masses. However, with platforms like Netflix and Amazon, movies like this should hopefully (and deserve too) find an audience who will appreciate, what is essentially a very beautiful piece of art.

Ray & Liz is out now.
For more info on Ray & Liz follow @NewWaveFilms on Twitter