The setting of Richard Billingham’s debut feature Ray & Liz is a council flat in England’s Black Country, a series of boroughs so named because of the coal mines and other heavy-industry dross that congested its air and sickened its population of people too poor to live anywhere else. It’s a moldering, putrid place, and you can almost smell it through the screen.
The foundations are in disrepair, the wallpaper is faded and peeling, paintings hang askew, pet hair establishes its permanence in the carpet like gum on a city street. The fish tank has become so occluded from abandonment and cigarette smoke that its swimmers can barely navigate inside. The family dog relieves itself on the incoming mail, and flies spend so much time on the furniture they should be paying rent.
Watching Billingham’s miserable memory film, I thought, more than once, of George Orwell’s description of the canteen in 1984: “Its walls grimy from the contact of innumerable bodies; … bent spoons, dented trays, coarse white mugs; all surfaces greasy, grime in every crack; and a sourish, composite smell of bad gin and bad coffee and metallic stew and dirty clothes.”
Ray and Liz’s production designer, Beck Rainford, has created a simulation of the unsanitary hovel where Richard Billingham himself grew up during the rising inequalities of the Thatcher era. The movie unspools as a series of two vignettes: In the first, Richard, then 10 years old, leaves with his parents, Ray and Liz (Justin Salinger and Ella Smith) to buy themselves new shoes in town. They leave Ray’s 2-year-old brother Jason at home with Ray’s simpleton brother Lol (Tony Way), with instruction that he absolutely not consume any of the alcohol hidden, it turns out, in the apartment’s floorboards. It doesn’t end well.
In the next, longer segment, Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd), now 10 and beginning to develop a sense of his squalid surroundings and the neglect of his parents, spends a nearly fatal night and a day outside of his home in the dead of winter — visiting a zoo, enjoying a bonfire with friends and then shuddering himself to sleep in a freezing shed. Ray and Liz, meanwhile, don’t even seem to notice he’s missing. When a social worker informs them that Jason will need to move in with foster parents, their only disappointment is in the reduction in their government benefits with one fewer dependent in the house.
Framing these flashbacks are three scenes of the more-or-less present-day Ray (Patrick Romer), still living in the same decaying flat, his body thin and wilting. His morning ritual involves sitting up in a bed, lighting a cigarette and pouring himself booze until it nearly overflows from his glass, and downing it in a single Olympian guzzle. He survives on occasional visits from Liz (Deirdre Kelly), who has left him. There is talk of cancer. We never see Ray exit the bed.
These specimens, cruel and unsympathetic leeches on the government dole, are not only divorced from Hollywood’s gaze. They’re also absent from the kitchen-sink art-house dramas of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and Tony Richardson, whose power draws from their flawed and striving characters’ inherently redeeming qualities.
Making the movie may have been cleansing for Billingham. (Autobiography runs in this artist’s blood; Ray & Liz is a continuation of Ray’s Laugh, a ’90s-era photography project shot by Billingham.) But for many of us, Ray & Liz is a hopeless and altogether unpleasant viewing that seems to borrow more from the lo-fi shock cinema of early John Waters — Billingham shot the film on 16mm stock, so that the image feels grubby and in need of Palmolive — but without the subversive humor.
If there are laughs in Ray & Liz, they are of a comedy blacker than the polluted air filling the characters’ lungs, the sort of humor where you forget to laugh, because it almost feels offensive to do so. The costs of sitting through Ray & Liz, in other words, outweigh its meager benefits.
And yet its visuals — insert shots of the tacky art judging the characters from the walls, a color palette of more browns than you knew existed, the symbolically potent image of Liz completing a puzzle over the surface of her son’s portrait, and blocking him out — stick with me. That’s the thing with such deep-rooted grime. It can be hard to remove.
RAY & LIZ. Director: Richard Billingham; Cast: Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Jacob Tuton, Tony Way, Sam Gittins; Distributor: KimStim; Not Rated;
Opens: Friday at Lake Worth Playhouse