Memories are both joyous and painful and are transformed in Ray & Liz, an autobiographical directorial debut from Richard Billingham, where he attempts to bring the memories of his own working-class childhood in 1980s Birmingham to life. Billingham, an English photographer, became best known for his 1996 compilation Ray’s A Laugh — which captured his alcoholic father and a general look at his troubled home life. Billingham has, for over twenty years, used his camera to create personal, intensely specific images that double as snapshots of urban poverty and parental neglect. In that respect, Ray & Liz interrogates the impulse to transform life into art.
For the opening several minutes, the camera marinates on an older Ray (Patrick Romer) stirring from his sleep, lights a cigarette and finishes off a bottle of homebrew. He spends each day in this self-imposed isolation, drinking and drinking, miserable yet strangely content. Apart from the fruit flies swarming about his dingy one-room apartment, Ray’s only company is Sid (Richard Ashton), his neighbor who replenishes his booze daily, and his estranged wife, Liz (Deirdre Kelly), a walking scowl who stops by for irregular visits. From this first location — which we return to intermittently — it then dissolves to a pair of extended flashbacks where we get a piercing sense of the squalor and poverty, emotional as well as economical, that defined his family life.
In a miserable Birmingham flat, filthy surfaces and peeling wallpaper, we catch glimpses of a younger Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith), though neither one threatens to become a protagonist, much less a hero. Ray is inattentive and unsuccessful. Liz isn’t much more of a parent, though she does feel far more present, with her quick temper and imposing, tattoo-covered frame. She sits and smokes and does jigsaw puzzles while the TV set blares in the next room. Booze and cigarettes are plentiful; money, not so much. The first of the two extended flashbacks, set in the late ’70s, recounts a tense, darkly funny incident in which Ray and Liz go out with their older son, Richard (Jacob Tuton), leaving their toddler, Jason (Callum Slater), with Ray’s mentally challenged brother, Lol (Tony Way). For reasons that are unsurprising but never predictable, Lol turns out to be a poor choice for a babysitter. While the second extended flashback picks up this chain of negligence several years later, when Jason is now a ten-year-old boy (a contemplatively wrenching Joshua Millard-Lloyd) who goes out to play with friends one night and doesn’t return home, leading to a possible lingering placement in foster care.
Although the film hails from a long tradition of British social realism films, with faint echoes of Terrence Davies and Ken Loach, Billingham separates himself somewhat. He shoots Ray & Liz in the cramped confines of the academy aspect-ratio and the grungy texture of 16mm, working with cinematographer Daniel Landin. One obvious but telling difference that Ray & Liz does is that young Richard is presented as an onlooker (played by Sam Plant). In contrast of Billingham’s photographs, we are seeing skillful arrangements filtered through the imperfect haze of memory. And curiously, both flashbacks are centered not on young Richard but rather on his brother Jason, the most vulnerable member of the family. Neither son is anywhere to be seen or heard of when we return to Ray in his room decades later, cast off, though not entirely forgotten.
There is the occasional directorial overreach; one or two pop music needle-drops that read as too obvious, and an interplay with the natural world that veers into repetition, as Jason’s fixation with miserably caged zoo animals is a little too on-the-nose than perhaps intended. And as said before there are elements of the film that do feel familiar at times, but Billingham does find some avenues to make his own identity.
The film’s interlocking themes are imprisonment and abandonment. Despite the occasional shifts in time and location, we always seems to be trapped in the same dingy room, one that rarely feels lonelier than when it’s crowded with people. But what distinguishes Ray & Liz is its ability to find flickers of humor in the most despairing passages, injecting just a drop of hope. It’s personal filmmaking with a diarist’s sense of detail and an artist’s generosity. A bleak, fragmented memoir, Ray & Liz finds strange tonal shades within the sorrow to examine the very limits of memory.