Depicting British working class on film typically endures a mixed cinematic representation. Amongst illustrating life north of Watford as a poverty-ridden fuelled existence of nothingness, these inaccurate portrayals only serve to create a London centric approach to not only just cinema but culture itself in the UK.
However, every now and again an artist breaks through this barrier and delivers a delicate tale of life with compassion. From Terence Davies to now Richard Billingham, these directors help shape the way cinema is the ultimate tool for voyeuristic empathy. Standing out as an assured debut from photographer Richard Billingham, Ray & Liz draws closely on Billingham’s previous autobiographical portraits of his father in his book ‘Ray’s a Laugh’.
Merging the personal with an austere sensibility of cinematography, the subject matter focuses on a loose account of his own youth. Growing in a variety of locations across the Black Country including a high-rise, with his mother, Liz (Ella Smith) and father, Ray (Justin Salinger), life is a tedious existence in their home. Yet what does remain is a home nonetheless – an experience all audiences can relate towards.
Commencing with still images of an older Ray (Patrick Romer), he drinks a curious black liquid from the bottle whilst flies swarm around his cupboard sized bedroom. The atmosphere that is conjured in the repetition of Ray’s decaying wrinkled face casts a melancholic tone over the whole feature. Adopting a tight framing of the wrinkles, strangely comparable to Agnes Varda in Jacquot de Nantes, the director underlines our impending decay and mortality with this focus. Dually casting his father in two roles, the juxtaposition that is created in Romer’s portrayal as frail withering being lingers in one’s memory.
Swiftly jumping to very late 1970s, Liz fills her home with strange porcelain dolls, jigsaw puzzles and housing numerous animals. Inattentively leaving her children to play all by themselves, the beige mise-en-scene in their small house evokes the work of fellow photographer Shirley Baker. Baker by capturing her subjects in monochrome serves to place the lives of the everyday people in a stark composition; comparably achieved in Billingham’s images of Thatcherism.
The titular characters are divided into composed vignettes that frame them over time slowly becoming divided, in part to neglect, from their children Richard and Jason. A process adopted from his photography, the director cuts deep into his own recollected experiences at the hands of his parents. The youngest boy Jason only seeks to gain the attention of his parents but his need for love is only cast aside in Ray & Liz’s toxic neglect. In one scene, Jason decides to sleep rough rather than go home, in part due to his fear of walking home alone. The heartbreaking portrayal of a lost little boy out in the cold dark evening is as stirring an image one will witness in cinema this year.
By adopting a grainy 16mm texture to colour in his images, the director, along with his DoP Daniel Landin, seek to create a tactile sense of space, comparable to Baker, of life in England. Besides this photographic eye, placing animals in mise-en-scene space creates an evocative sense of atmosphere that anyone, regardless of class, can associate to their childhood. The images cast their magic in a sensory manner, chiefly through these two elements. Further, an underlying use of diegetic sounds, such as these animals, extends Ray & Liz’s evocative spell.
A symphony of cinema, Ray & Liz possesses an undeniable level of artistic expression on memory. Capturing space and time in a manner that only film can create in every single image there is a deep-rooted emotive quality. Granted a tough watch, it is an essential one to view everyone with compassion, no matter of their social standings.