A memoir in reenactments, Richard Billingham’s long-gestating feature debut unfolds in the Black Country council flat (west of Birmingham) where he was raised, and to which he’s returned in his celebrated photography collections and his documentary short Fishtank. Named after his parents, Ray & Liz slides between Billingham’s childhood and adolescence—where the narrative focus comes to settle on his little brother Jason, a cherubic wanderer subsisting exclusively on boxed bread—and the present day, which finds the elderly Ray an alcoholic shut-in paid occasional visits by Liz, still cantankerous, obese, and cowed by the persistent elusiveness of money.
Gorgeously photographed on 16mm by Daniel Landin (Under the Skin), at times evoking the work of Nan Goldin in its candor, color palette, and attention to patterns—wallpaper, rugs, lace curtains, tent dresses, puzzles—Ray & Liz counters the grubby, quasi-authentic tenets of so-called British miserablism with humor, beauty, and a sensuality that in no way dilutes the hardships and neglect at its core. Inhabiting cramped rooms redolent of cigarette smoke and stasis, parents and siblings are depicted here out of a genuine sense of curiosity, rather than as objects of resentment. And the soundtrack featuring Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dusty Springfield, and Musical Youth’s immortal “Pass the Dutchie,” dreamily phasing in and out of the diegesis, exalts the culture of the era without diffusing Billingham’s tacit condemnation of Thatcherite policies.