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RAY & LIZ

★★★

NOT YOUR TYPICAL "POVERTY PORN" FLICK

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
LATEST REVIEWS
By Jake Watt
15th August 2019

Characters in kitchen sink dramas are often poor, disillusioned, and bellowing in broad regional accents with a ciggy in one hand and a pint in the other. There is something inherently British about the unapologetic honesty of these films - incredibly intelligent, self-reflexive, and crucially, able to laugh at themselves.

Dissecting the term "kitchen sink" will give you a pretty firm idea of what the film movement is all about. It's derived from an expressionist painting by John Bratby featuring an image of - you guessed it - a kitchen sink, widely understood to represent domesticity, and the strains of banal, mundane everyday life. These raw human stories revolved around crumbling marriages, the drudgery of unskilled work, sexual orientation, stymied aspirations, backstreet abortions, disenfranchised youth, homelessness, and gender, class and race discrimination.

Social realism czar Ken Loach made his feature film debut with 1967’s ‘Poor Cow’, which broke ranks from earlier kitchen sink dramas by featuring a female protagonist, shooting in colour, setting its action in London, and including pop songs from Donovan.

Although venturing far beyond the stylistic trappings of kitchen sink drama, Loach has throughout his career continued to champion working-class people pushed to the margins of society. He isn’t the only one still examining the working class, either. The spirit - if not the rigid style - of kitchen sink drama has been picked up by top British filmmakers including Shane Meadows, Mike Leigh, Andrea Arnold, Clio Barnard and Lynne Ramsay.

You can now add Richard Billingham to that list, whose semi-autobiographical ‘Ray & Liz’ documents his own troubled childhood growing up in a Birmingham council flat during the Thatcher era with his alcoholic father Ray, obese, heavily tattooed mother Liz, and younger brother Jason.

'RAY & LIZ' TRAILER

Billingham shot to fame in 1996 with the photobook 'Ray's a Laugh', an unflinching depiction of his parents' chaotic home lives. Copies were acquired by Charles Saatchi, who would go on to include Billingham’s photographs in his exhibition 'Sensation', an infamous 1997 showcasing of early works by Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Sarah Lucas, Mat Collishaw and Tracey Emin at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

‘Ray & Liz’ opens with a literal fly on the wall. Ray (Patrick Romer), spends his days seemingly awaiting death in a single-room flat. This is around the time Billingham took his photos, although prior knowledge of the photo series isn’t a prerequisite for engaging with the film. Ray’s only interaction with the outside world comes in the form of his neighbour Sid, who brings him a bottle of dark brown booze each morning. He sits in a chair, looking out of the window, smoking a cigarette. Nothing discernible happens as he lives his quiet, hermetic life. Trapped in his bedroom, uncertain whether it is day or night, and drinking with a trembling hand, he shouts out to the estranged Liz (Deirdre Kelly) through the flat window. "As long as Sid cashes my dole down that post office, pays my bills and brings me special home-brew, I’m happy as a pig in shit," he insists.

The film is structured as a triptych (the introduction is the third chapter, time-wise), exploring three separate chapters of Billingham’s early life with Ray, Liz and Jason. The first chapter is dated around 1980. Ray (Justin Salinger) has lost his job as a factory machinist and been conned out of his few grand of redundancy money. This section focuses on the time his mother, brash chain-smoker Liz (Ella Smith, ‘Cinderella’), put three-year-old Jason (Callum Slater) in the care of Uncle Lol (Tony Way, ‘High-Rise’, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’) for an afternoon. Will the lodger (Sam Gittins) gets blind drunk on the crateful of booze hidden in the cellar, and Jason goes missing. Vomiting and some mild bludgeoning ensues.

It may be dour, but the film is also vital, edgy and progressive. It also must be noted that it’s very funny at times, in a brutal human comedy sort of way.

In the second chapter, we meet Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) as a misbehaving pubescent teen whose misdemeanours include tipping chilli powder into Ray’s mouth while he sleeps. This part of the film focuses on the days before Jason was taken into foster care, having spent a winter night in a garden shed far from home without Ray or Liz even noticing he was missing (his parents are seen, bizarrely, taking a rabbit in a pram for a stroll in the park). As her son is taken away, Liz simply responds with: "Pass me a fag, Ray," to her husband, who seems more concerned about the £25 that will be docked from their dole money.

The lines between fact and fiction are blurred, as ‘Ray & Liz’ is entirely based on Billingham’s memories, distorted by time. The film’s tactile environment keeps us at a child’s view of the world, picking up on the sort of small, seemingly innocuous details that would linger in a youngster’s mind. Bouncing back and forth through time, Billingham attempts to answer the tough questions about who his parents were and how they shaped his psychological journey, as well as examining the layers of complex neglect.

The film sees Billingham collaborating with cinematographer Daniel Landin (‘Under The Skin’), rather than shooting himself. Landin shoots in 16mm compositions and plays with lighting, recreating the claustrophobia of Billingham’s images with 4:3 framing and eye-popping colour.

The imagery is startling. A design on a coffee mug. A tattooed wrist. A body splayed on an ugly rug. Multiple unfinished jigsaws laid out in the living room. The wallpaper pattern is a scene from a seaside town - spinning Ferris wheels, winding rollercoasters, fairground murals - yet the paper itself is pockmarked with holes and stains. Cluttered knick-knacks, cigarette ash and light filtered through curtains fill each frame with vividness.

It may be dour, but the film is also vital, edgy and progressive. It’s also very funny at times, in a brutal human comedy sort of way ('Good Thing' by Fine Young Cannibals plays over the end credits). To be put off by the uncomfortable themes, unglamorous urban location and prevailing sense of gloom that permeates ‘Ray & Liz’ would be a big mistake. This drama crackles with angry energy, and reflects how grim life really was and, unfortunately, still can be for large parts of the population.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: TBA
RUN TIME: 1h 48m
CAST: Justin Salinger
Ella Smith
Tony Way
Patrick Rohmer
Deirdre Kelly
Callum Slater
Joshua Millard-Lloyd
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Richard Billingham
PRODUCERS: Adam Partridge
Ed Talfan
RayAndLizFilm
RayAndLizFilm
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