Richard Billingham’s photography is world renowned, and with his debut feature Billingham brings the power of his photographic skills to a tough and heartrending childhood memoir of poverty and dysfunctional family life in 1980s Britain.
From the outset Ray and Liz makes no attempt to romanticise poverty of opportunity, family breakdown and the inability of adults to circumnavigate the restrictions placed upon them. From the opening scenes where we join Ray; a broken man living his life through isolation, alcohol and sleep to the first flash backs of family life full of anger, division and an inability to structure a family home. This is film that has no intention of holding back in its view of families torn apart by poverty and the inability to cope.
Shot in a non theatrical 4:3 format on 16mm film Billingham creates a feeling of claustrophobia from the outset, coupled with a sense of documentary like realness; Ray and Liz feels like a porthole into the memories of its director. This creates a truly powerful cinematic experience, not unlike Terrance Davies ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’. Ray and Liz is a snapshot of a society where class and background impact the opportunity for achievement and family development. However, where Ray and Liz differs to previous powerful portrayals of family life, is in its critique not only of family dysfunction and poverty but of a society unwilling to challenge, support and care for the children subject to this existence. Schools stand ideally by, and community members only step in once the full reality of a childhood lacking love and care is truly revealed. Ray and Liz provides a social commentary that not reflects the inability of parents to care, but also the unwillingness of society to do the same.
Filming often feels like a photographic study, providing images that burn into the viewers memory, using colour and light to portray emotions of brief joy, isolation, fear and spiralling family decline. Performances are rooted in the reality of the subject matter; real to the childhood memories they depict, often providing a child’s perspective of poverty and isolation. There are moments of laughter which all to quickly are replaced by the stark reality of life, once more providing a documentary like feel to the end result.
Subjects of mental health, learning disabilities and addiction are handled carefully, the taboo and inability of 1980s Britain to identify and provide support to these clearly visible for the outset; remaining secret within family boundaries, unspoken and unresolved.
Ray and Liz is powerful and stark filmmaking that is unafraid to explore social themes of poverty and family breakdown against a backdrop of a society of ever increasing socio economic segregation and isolation.