Starring Ella Smith. Rating unavailable
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”
Thus wrote Philip Larkin, poet laureate of mid-century English neurotics. If he’d known Richard Billingham’s parents, he might have been even more blunt.
In fact, Larkin’s father was a brutal autocrat whose Nazi sympathies didn’t keep the family home from getting bombed in the war. From what we see in Ray & Liz, the artist turned filmmaker’s strangely intoxicating first feature, Billingham’s tower-block flat wasn’t much more inviting.
Jumping between three time frames, the movie is mostly set in that cluttered, animal-strewn three-roomer dominated by obese, heavily tattooed Liz (Ella Smith), who spends her days chain-smoking, assembling jigsaw puzzles, and threatening every member of her family.
Much ire is aimed at the passive Ray (Justin Salinger), who’s been collecting cigarette stubs on the street since being swindled out of his dole money.
There’s also plenty of frantic yelling at their two small sons—introspective Richard and mischievous Jason—and at Ray’s mentally challenged brother (Tony Way).
The unemployed couple also has young lodger (Sam Gittins) who delights in adding torment to the already troubled family.
In such bleak surroundings, with only a sad electric fire providing warmth, these aggressions pass for entertainment and, indeed, some of this distinctly nonnostalgic look back at Thatcher’s England in decay is darkly funny—as if Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives was played for harsh laughs.
The novice director grew up in the well-named Black Country, west of formerly industrial Birmingham, and he’s less forgiving than such past-ills cataloguers as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. But he’s not condemning anyone, either. He has the detachment of someone who grew up rough and became a world-respected photographer, notably for the unsparing photos of his parents, who greatly resemble the actors playing them at various, time-jumping stages.
Later (and earlier, in the jumbled narrative structure), when the desiccated Ray is on his own, with insects and empty beer bottles his only company in that same, almost vacant apartment, Liz is played by Brit-TV reality “star” Deirdre Kelly. That and the ’80s songs on the soundtrack are among the few nods to what you might call audience pleasure.
Like his warts-only photographs, the movie is beautifully shot (in a squarish 16mm format) and offers both claustrophobia and a muted but insistent respect for the human need to do more than survive.
By the way, the next line in Larkin’s parental poem reads, “They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you.” Or, as writers call it, good material.