Ray and Liz are not the stars of their namesake film. Their presences hang spectrally around the edges – never fully-realised, but omnipresent. Saturating his images in the subjective haze of memory, director Richard Billingham here pens a scathing, empathetic letter of forgiveness to his titular parents.
In the terraced houses of a Thatcher-era Black Country, Billingham and younger brother Jason grew up under the shadow, rather than the wing, of their embittered, disenfranchised mother and father – scenes of wanton neglect are made tangible by Billingham and cinematographer Daniel Landin’s commitment to the social-realist grit of family life on the dole.
This grit, though, is punctuated with the soft beauty derived from mundane objects – for instance, in a present-day framing narrative, an older, alcoholic and solitary Ray (Patrick Romer) stares into the haunting red light of his one-room flat’s electric heater in one of the film’s most evocative and stirring sequences.
Back in the piercingly-realised ’80s, Ray and Liz’s apathy tramples innocence underfoot – first in Ray’s mentally handicapped brother Lol (Tony Way), who is derided and abused for his difference, and later 10 year-old Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd), who sleeps in the cold beneath a cavalcade of fireworks in one gorgeously desolate montage that takes in the film’s plentiful parade of tragic figures.
The younger Ray and Liz skirt around the periphery – Justin Sallinger plays Ray as a weak, empty shell of squandered masculine expectation, while Ella Smith’s Liz is raging and impenetrable up until the single, devastating moment that she isn’t.
Reaching backwards to understand the hardship of his formative years, Billingham finds clarity and cinematic grace by reconciling the deep, irreparable flaws of his mother and father with the bigger forces that broke his family apart before it could ever properly form.
CAST: Ella Smith, Deirdre Kelly, Justin Sallinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way
DIRECTOR: Richard Billingham
WRITER: Richard Billingham
SYNOPSIS: Photographer Richard Billingham returns to the squalid council flat outside of Birmingham where he and his brother were raised, in a confrontation and reconciliation with parents Ray and Liz.