Billingham’s visions are not there to offer the beauty or romance that one might look for from other memoir films—they’re there to relay witness of true, unfaltering stories, whether we like it or not.
In Ray & Liz, images are constantly being divided. The film is full of windows: people leaning their heads or dropping things out of them, curtains shielding their light, dismal views of rainy days, fog and bleak buildings. In a lot of ways, this makes sense; the film was directed by Richard Billingham, known for his art and photography, and the keen cinematography often serves to divide and limit the world of the titular characters. The film offers a portrait of Billingham’s childhood, with himself and his younger brother, Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd), growing ever more affected by their parents’ poverty and neglect.
The feelings of being trapped and divided often manifest through animals. Jason watches tigers milling around on TV, and later has a tender moment feeding a giraffe at the zoo. Liz (Ella Smith) slowly and painstakingly assembles a jigsaw puzzle of a tiger. Insects crawl around, a sad-looking parakeet dwindles in a cage and a dog watches the family interact from the vantage point of a cardboard box (once leaving it to urinate on an envelope in the mail). Everywhere, limits and divisions are being drawn and reinforced.
It’s not a fun movie to watch, and it doesn’t intend to be. The moments where the tension lets up the most—or perhaps where it releases the most—are the ones when song and sound are incorporated into the overall tragedy. This happens notably when Jason attends a bonfire with some friends, one of the few arguably happy events of the film, and the song playing at the bonfire only seems to amplify his own aloneness and lack of freedom amid this new setting. Later, another song plays to accompany the red light filling an elderly Ray’s (Patrick Romer) room. He sits and listens to it, the camera frozen on his face, for the entirety of the song, and the moment when he sings along quietly with the words is one of the most heart-twisting parts of the entire film.
The kids themselves seem very blank and disaffected most of the time—but this makes sense in the context of experiencing trauma, and it makes tender moments, like Jason trying to pet the animals through the TV screen or playing video games with his friend later on, peek through more distinctly. The two boys, after all, are the most sympathetic characters, against a tableau of adults whose indifference toward them is often difficult to understand. You dislike Will (Sam Gittins) for basically traumatizing both Jason and Lol (Tony Way), manipulating Lol into poisoning himself with alcohol and then completing the scene by giving Jason a knife to hold—but you also can’t stand Lol, who, with his oblivious demeanor and shrill, repetitive lines, seems set up to be nearly impossible to like.
It’s also hard not to dislike Liz and Ray (Justin Salinger) at times, like when they run into Jason at the park after he’s been living at his friend’s home and react only with nonchalant curiosity: Liz asks Jason where he’s been and remarks, “The coppers are out looking for you.” There’s no scolding, no hug of relief and reunion. The lack of concern the characters seem to have for one another at times like this is alarming, but it also manifests against a backdrop of completely gloomy, hope-wrung life. It’s hard to break past this veneer as a viewer, and all but impossible for the characters living it.
But of course, Liz, Ray, Richard and Jason aren’t just characters—they’re based on the real figures of Billingham’s family, and real events from his childhood growing up in working-class, Thatcher-era Britain. This is the context that lends the film one of its truest strengths. The settings are dismal, the vacant suffering interminable and the characters unlikeable, but all of it is unalterably real.
You can see Billingham’s photographic eye everywhere in Ray & Liz, in the stark sights of his parents sleeping in bed or lounging in the living room. The film in a lot of ways is less difficult to access if one is familiar with the photography, or at least looking out for its influence. Billingham’s visions are not there to offer the beauty or romance that one might look for from other memoir films—they’re there to relay witness of true, unfaltering stories, whether we like it or not. It’s Billingham’s harsh images that lock in the truth of what Liz is constantly attempting to do with the jigsaws—trying to make sense of a mess of colors, to arrange them into a semblance of what they were meant to be.