CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Unhappy home truths in Ray and Liz

08 March, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Ella Smith, superb as mother Liz in Ray and Liz

RAY AND LIZ
Directed by Richard Billingham
Certificate 15
☆☆☆☆

DIRECTOR Richard Billingham invites us to take his hand and step back in time – and the effects are really quite unnerving.

While essentially a portrait of a dysfunctional family, Ray and Liz is not just the story of human interaction – it also heads back to the near past so we can view an era whose latent poverty spawned the Britain we know today.

The back story to this brilliant character-driven drama is this: in 1996, Billingham created a book of images that drew on his family. It was not a pretty process. Featuring his father Ray – an alcoholic, whose grim world Billingham captured in all its depressing, confused fury – and his mother Liz, and their combustible relationship
became the central subject matter.

Now Billingham has made an almost live action version of the book and it feels as horribly true to the portraits he took.

We watch as Ray (Justin Salinger) becomes redundant, and then step on a slope that leads them to lose their home.

Lawrence (Tony Way), Ray’s brother, has difficulties and is the butt of their pent-up anger. The bullying he is subjected to is horrific.

Then there is the horrendous neglect of the youngest, Jason, who has a squalid existence because of the family’s general disenfranchise­ment and inability to manage.

Mother Liz (Ella Smith, superb) is perhaps the most intriguing of the lot – a fierce, complex mass of uncontrollable action and reaction.

As well as the brilliant leads, Billingham’s artistic eye has recreated an England of Thatcherite misery. The set could be transported straight into the Geffrye Museum of interiors – it’s pitch perfect, from the graffiti-strewn, joy-forgotten state to the carpets and walls that surround the characters and oppress them.

Ray and Liz is an important film offering a sense of reality to the effect poverty, lack of choice and lack of help has on the individual and on the family.

It is not easy to watch – particularly because you have to ask whether this is a case of going on “poverty safari”. Are we being asked to peek through net curtains at a dysfunctional family whose heartbreaking circumstances create the background for the personal drama to play out? Perhaps – and there could be an element of snobbery as we recoil in horror at the fags being sucked, the booze gulped down.

But that isn’t the fault of the film, or its careful director.

Billingham has created a masterful portrait, drawing on his own family, and it is hard to find fault.

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