It’s the early 90s and Ray (Patrick Romer) lives in a tiny flat he never leaves. He is like Philip Larkin’s Mr Bleaney, “his age having no more to show/Than one hired box”, except this box is provided to him by the council. Occasionally, a neighbor visits him with the dole and three large bottles of home-brewed beer. Ray spends his days smoking cigarettes, occasionally looking past the flowery, frayed curtains out of the window, and drinking until he can go back to sleep. He is unemployed, unloved and alone. He is a product of Thatcher’s Britain.
Ray & Liz is unsparing in its depiction of Black Country life during the Iron Lady’s time, a slice of kitchen-sink realism that works both as a personal memoir and political critique. For Richard Billingham, who has photographed his family his entire career, it is the culmination of his life’s work. Having garnered critical acclaim for depicting his parent’s lives in rundown council flats, the Turner Prize-nominated artist’s first feature plays like a emotionally heightened collection of his photographic portraits.
Told in three parts and set across three different time periods, Ray & Liz adds narrative into his usual formula, incisively demonstrating the two crucial events that lead to the titular couple’s separation. Using different actors to play the same characters – including Ella Smith and Justin Salinger as a younger version of the couple – the eventual triptych plays something like the reverse of Moonlight. Instead of hope slowly burgeoning it slowly burns out, like the electricity when Liz hasn’t got enough for the meter.
If the subject all sounds like doom and gloom, Ray & Liz offsets its depressing subject matter through empathy and humour. Credit has to go to the pin-point production design, which really brings the surreal oddball aesthetic of Billingham’s work to life. Shot on location, few flats feel as lived in as these, cluttered with endless nicknacks and model figurines. They are fond of animals. They keep a dog, a rabbit, two hamsters and a parrot, as well as various animal paintings. Rarely venturing out from the flat themselves, one senses they have an affinity with these caged creatures. The peculiarity of their habits – such as Liz’s love of massive jigsaw puzzles and Ray’s pride in making his own beer – give them a homely charm. They may be hopeless parents, but they are still fully-rounded people. They had hopes and dreams once too: an old polaroid of a younger, happier couple gathers dust on the mantelpiece.
Billingham’s familiarity with the subject matter shines through in the precision of his images. Smartly shot on nostalgia-inducing 16mm and using the boxy academy ratio, every shot feels like it could be hung and framed. Perhaps the artistic quality of the film itself is the secret happy ending. Thankfully, in his own autobiographical tale, Billingham avoids the cliché of the child becoming an artist. He only sees himself as a quiet and observant boy who seems happiest away from his parents. Still, by returning to them over and over again in his work, he is doing their lives justice through the simple act of documentation.
There is a political context too. Premiering at a time when the austerity policy of the British government has been declared a human rights scandal by the UN, Ray & Liz clearly demonstrates the devastating reality of simply not having enough money to have a happy life. Although never mentioning her by name, Thatcher, and the policies she implemented, remains the hidden enemy of the film. This makes Ray & Liz a difficult film to sit through. This world may look different now, but the cruelty remains the same.