In one of the more striking images from Ray’s a Laugh, British photographer and painter Richard Billingham’s seminal collection of brutally matter-of-fact family portraits, a white cat hovers uncannily in the middle of a dingy living room, no doubt as a result of having been thrown into the air by the old codger seated beneath it. The overall impression is of a moment spliced out of a larger moving whole, and this implicit narrative quality, in which bits of restless action are invested with context by the surrounding domestic spaces, is prevalent through much of Billingham’s photography.
With Ray & Liz, Billingham’s first feature film, the larger cinematic context teased out by the artist’s portrait work is abundantly realized, with a unifying thread being the gritty celluloid and boxy aspect ratio that’s long been his signature. Revisiting and expanding on the autobiographical material of Ray’s a Laugh, Billingham has crafted a film that vividly conjures up the textures, sounds, and sensations of the squalid public housing units of Thatcher-era Britain—in this case, the exact West Midlands tenement apartment where he grew up and spent his formative artistic years. In tackling this sensitive private history of poverty, starvation, alcohol abuse, parental neglect, and forced relocation, Billingham has splintered his narrative across three separate timelines: the late aughts, when Billingham’s father, Ray, was frittering away his final days in a drunken stupor; the late 1980s, when the family lived in the high-rise unit that set the scene for Ray’s a Laugh; and the early ’80s, the final stage of their tenure at a comparatively serene terraced house.
The most recent of these episodes provides the anchoring point from which Ray & Liz’s narrative is structured. Comprising a Beckettian study of stasis, seclusion, and repetition, these scenes, returned to three times throughout the film, depict a feeble-bodied Ray (Patrick Romer) in near-constant supine position inside his cramped bedroom, only occasionally willing his body upright to top off his glass of homebrew or to take in a view of the drab gray municipal district outside his window. Visitors are few and far between, so all that keeps him company is a vintage radio and a stream of decaying memories—two of which become sustained flashbacks branching off from this main story thread, and whose not-exactly-rosy revelations do a great deal to flesh out the psychological state of Ray’s dead-end existence.
The first of these flashbacks, and arguably the weakest chapter in Ray & Liz’s mosaic of memory bits, jumps back furthest in time to dramatize an incident of familial dysfunction that plays out like a particularly grotesque Todd Solondz set piece. An average day at the Billingham home is summarily sketched: Ray (Justin Salinger) mills about in the kitchen; his wife, Liz (Ella Smith), chain smokes and knits by the window; sons Richard (Jacob Tuton) and Jason (Callum Slater) play with their toys; and the family dog looks on. Then, the sequence’s wild card is introduced in the form of Ray’s mentally handicapped brother, Lol (Tony Way), who’s been assigned to watch two-year-old Jason while the parents run errands. And when an unhinged neighbor, Will (Sam Gittins), arrives on the scene and tricks Lol into drinking from the family’s stash of hard liquor, the already hectic status quo is exacerbated by an outpouring of emotional cruelty, physical violence, and puke.
Beyond its potential significance as a site of trauma or as a demonstration of the depths of squalor this family has endured, it’s unclear at first as to why Billingham homes in on this particular day, lending it an almost cartoonish sense of dread that the remainder of Ray & Liz eschews. There’s a bluntness to the representation of abuse and its aftermath that verges on the exploitative (especially as Lol becomes a drunken mess) and a lack of generosity toward the characters. Still, the episode steers clear of bad-faith miserabilism by virtue of its from-the-gut specificity, which extends from the note-perfect production design to the loving insert shots of wall paintings and a pet canary, and by an overall impression that this is an incident that Billingham needs to exorcise. In the heart-wrenching concluding image, which eloquently links young Richard’s compulsion to record his daily life with his mother’s creeping melancholy, that need is palpable.
Back in the older Ray’s amber-hued one-room apartment, the man reflects on a grade-school portrait of Jason, whose youthful wanderings and horseplay become the subject of the film’s second and most moving flashback. In this section, Ray and Liz are nearly absent, with Billingham ceding the stage to the taciturn Jason as the boy scarfs down sandwiches made with pickled red cabbage, drops items on passersby from high above the ground (as well as into his sleeping father’s mouth), and watches daytime television. Mesmerized by the animals he sees on the screen, Jason embarks on a crosstown pilgrimage to the zoo, an adventure his tuned-out parents are completely uninformed about until an eventual visit from child protection officers.
Before this sobering reality check, however, the story centers almost solely on Jason and his bemused encounters with the small world beyond his family’s claustrophobic flat—a gloomy playground of dead trees, dilapidated brick bridges, and rickety chairlifts. When he does get to the zoo, the animals aren’t the majestic beasts seen on the telly, but rather malnourished-looking canines and disinterested seals. He gets lost, finds a bonfire started by fellow schoolboys, and eventually winds up alone in the cold night air. Through it all, Billingham generates some of his most astonishing images and sequences, from an impressionistic firecracker display set to Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie,” to a series of shots detailing Jason’s nervous passage through shadowy side streets at night—all of which is anchored by Slater’s memorably pudgy face and entrancing articulation of Jason’s dazed shyness.
As with the Lol-centered episode, the sequence’s gut punch comes with the reemergence of Ray and Liz, who crucially aren’t condemned for their negligence or bad habits, but rather made to resemble worn-down victims of a government run on welfare austerity. Though not prone to the dreamlike flights of fancy that define Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes, another autobiographical film that hauntingly recreates the gloominess and ephemera of lower-class daily life in small-town Britain, Ray & Liz generates pathos instead through its detailed attention to its characters’ attempts to find permanence and meaning in a fundamentally unstable reality. For all of Liz’s cursing and brashness, she’s endeared to us by her puzzle-making, painting, and knitting—all born out of an implicit desire to generate things of value by hand when monetary value is so hard to come by. And while drinking is often a way to forget, for Ray it seems to be an outlet to remembering. When life is a drudging, dehumanizing crusade, there’s an element of dignity in that.