Ray & Liz
Richard Billingham takes his art into the cinema with Ray & Liz, a surreal portrait of his parents, two tragicomic lives existing – yet dispersed – on the outskirts of Birmingham. Fags, neglect, bugs, booze: all sit below the bizarre Midlands ether. Working class experience need not be social realist, noble or dank. It can be grotesque and perverse, obscene and transgressive.
Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) are at once caring and dismissive of their young son Jason. They entrust him to Lol (Tony Way), an oafish weight of a man whose tendency to alcoholism is readily exploited – the local Machiavellian brute Will (Sam Gittens) makes sure of that. It ends with a sharp blade in the boy’s hands, his body covered in boot polish. The film delights in absurdity.
Every character is an archetype, one rooted in truth but stretched to its extremity. Cheeky pranks are heightened: chilli powder, a gaping mouth, a tablespoon. It’s the oldest trick, and yet when we expect consequences there are none. Billingham isn’t interested in narrative expectations. Under a weight of economic misery and limited prospects, a council estate resists conventional storytelling.
As for much of the director’s work, this is strongly autobiographical. Here he fragments his parents into different people. Kevin (James Eeles) absorbs the homebrew imbibing, housebound aspects of his father. We trade on Black Country quirks: the traditions, the prejudices, the sense of stagnation. This is played for laughs, but gloomy undertones fester throughout. True violence, not slapstick effect, strangles the surface.
We finish bathed in red light, a mirror adjacent. What’s posed is sombre reflection. Obscurity gives way to sentiment – this is an angry, melancholy love letter from the filmmaker to those who brought him up. Social services have been called already. Chronology is fractured. All that’s left is an unframed picture of youthful marital affection, delicate and not yet debilitated.
Ray & Liz does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Locarno Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Locarno Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for Ray & Liz here: