Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz is a treacherous trip down memory lane

The artist's extraordinary new film reveals his bruised and complex view of the past.

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Richard Billingham’s stark and anarchic photographs of his parents, squashed together with assorted animals and knick-knacks in a Black Country high-rise, first came to wide attention in his 1996 book Ray’s a Laugh, and were selected for Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition of young British artists a year later.

Billingham’s pictures exposed the fissures and fractures in domestic scenes; there was humour, curiosity and sadness in them, and an eye for the poetry of violently clashing patterns—wallpaper, carpets, kaftans and jigsaws.

In his extraordinary new film Ray & Liz, Billingham adapts the textures and tensions of his early work for cinema. Ray, an elderly alcoholic played by Patrick Romer, now lives alone in a dank flat, subsisting on glasses of brown home brew. This preserves the setting from Ray’s a Laugh, but the film reaches into areas inaccessible to its source material, flashing back to Billingham’s 1970s childhood in a terraced house in Dudley, where misery is shot through with absurdism. When “Happy House” by Siouxsie and the Banshees rings out, you can bet it will be bitterly ironic. What is more unexpected is its defiant, jubilant air.

Like Lynne Ramsay in Ratcatcher or Andrea Arnold in Fish Tank, Billingham infuses the grim setting with a child’s sense of wonder. When Ray’s wife Liz (Ella Smith) unspools a cassette, the tape piles up around her ankles like Rapunzel hair; when Billingham’s uncle, Soft Lawrence (Tony Way), crashes drunkenly onto the living room floor, the camera studies him from above, framing him as an immobile Gulliver while his tiny nephew pads around his body like a curious Lilliputian.

Soft Lawrence is the victim of William (Sam Gittins), a handsome young brute in a white t-shirt, jeans, tattoos and slicked-back hair who has got him sloshed in order to fleece and then frame him. As the drunken Lawrence lies snoozing, William sets up the scene around him with incriminating evidence (boot-polish, assorted breakages and breadknife). What he calls to mind, as Billingham must know, is a photographer orchestrating the perfect shot.

The lives we see are eked out on the breadline with an air of desperation and feverishness. Yet Daniel Landin’s cinematography captures them affectionately. Reverence within the family is reserved for a giant jar of dog-ends scavenged from the underpass: “There’s an inch of white in some of ‘em!” marvels Ray (played as a younger man by Justin Salinger). Nature makes its only in-roads into the claustrophobic interiors in the form of a fox on a teacup, the tiger print on the wall, the wheat motif on the crockery, the snails kept in a Tupperware tub. Oh, and the insects—they get almost as many close-ups as their human co-stars.

When one of Ray and Liz’s sons flees the family home, sleeping in a neighbour’s shed after a fireworks display, they don’t seem to notice his absence; as far as they’re concerned, the world extends from the living room to the doorstep. A Fisher Price aeroplane is parked on the carpet, representing the closest that anyone here is likely to get to escaping. But someone did: Billingham. 

And it is his bruised and complex view of the past, seen through nicotine-yellowed net curtains rather than rose-tinted glasses, that makes the film such a rich experience. The only note that rings slightly false is the quietness: the picture doesn’t feel quite chaotic enough. Wouldn’t the voices of this brash family have been constantly competing for attention? Would the television set not have been blaring? The hush lends a refrigerated quality to the film – perhaps that’s the point.

As much as any film since Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, Billingham’s Ray & Liz is not merely about revisiting the past but re-examining it from a new angle. It’s a trip down memory lane where the ground underfoot is pitted and treacherous.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.