Ray & Liz
Panorama | Vanguard
In Richard Billingham’s debut feature, the Turner Prize-nominated photographer draws on his childhood to vividly recreate the actions and sensations of dysfunctional life on the margins of Birmingham during Thatcher-era Britain. Ray and Liz are Billingham’s parents, the subjects of the series of photographs that made Billingham’s name as an artist. Employing the square frame here, Billingham in essence gives his photographs their backstory, bringing them to life with a dark, unsettling humour. In a framing device, the older Ray is seen in bed in his tiny apartment, guzzling down homebrew, seemingly content with his sordid, fly-ridden existence. Billingham then transports us back to two periods from his childhood. Firstly, he recreates a brutal episode of babysitting gone wrong involving his youngest brother Jason, sadistic tenant William, somewhat mentally challenged Uncle Lol, and a copious amount of alcohol. Next, the family has relocated to an even more slovenly hovel, William is gone, and Jason and Richard are older—and very neglected, so much so that when Jason goes missing for a few days, nobody notices. Billingham is extremely detail-oriented, both in terms of the vivid depiction of 80s England, and in observing the small gestures of each character. Ultimately this rendering of humanity is what makes the film so powerful, maybe because he is bringing real people to life.