By Mark Peranson
In Richard Billingham’s stellar debut feature RAY & LIZ, the Turner Prize-nominated photographer draws on his childhood to vividly recreate the actions and sensations of dysfunctional life on the margins of Birmingham in Thatcher-era Britain. Ray and Liz are Billingham’s parents, the subjects of the series of photographs Ray’s a Laugh, which made Billingham’s name as an artist. Employing the square frame here (and shooting on Super 16 in collaboration with Under the Skin DP Daniel Landin), Billingham in essence is giving his photographs their backstory, bringing them to life with an oftentimes dark, unsettling, and unblinking humour.
In the framing device, the older Ray is seen in bed in his tiny apartment, guzzling down home brew, seemingly content with his rather sordid, fly-ridden existence. Billingham then transports us back to two periods from his own childhood. In the first, he recreates a brutal episode of babysitting gone wrong involving his youngest brother Jason, a sadistic flatmate named William, the somewhat mentally challenged Uncle Lol, and a copious amount of alcohol. In the next chapter, the family has relocated to an even more slovenly hovel, William is gone, and Jason and Richard are older and very neglected by their parents—so much so that, when Jason goes missing for a few days, nobody notices. (Despite their titular presence, we don’t see much of either Ray or Liz, which I gather is one way Billingham decided to “dramatize” their absence.)
As a filmmaker, Billingham is extremely detail-oriented, not only in terms of the vivid depiction of ’80s England (the art direction is impeccable) but also in the way that, reminiscent of early Terence Davies, he observes the small gestures of each character. This rendering of humanity is ultimately what makes the film so powerful, perhaps because Billingham is bringing real people that he knew, including himself, to life; I for one could watch Jason’s further adventures on a weekly basis, if Netflix happens to be reading this.