Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Ray & Liz – a surprisingly unchallenging story of neglect, squalor, depression and addiction (QFT until 20 March)

At its simplest, Ray & Liz is a film about growing up in a depressed and deprived area of the West Midlands in the 1980s. Set in two main timeframes, we watch two little boys grow up in a squalid terrace house that has more pets than humans yet struggles to afford to put food on the table and money in the electricity meter.

The adults – Ray and Liz – are consumed by alcohol, waking and sleeping in a pattern that aligns neither with the sun’s rising and setting nor with their children who are supposed to be going to school. The children are self-organising, and remarkably unferal given the lack of supervision. The eldest child Richard uses a tape recorder to record and replay adult conversations, adding layers of understanding to the aftermath of some scenes.

We also watch the two parents later in life: one continuously stocious from home brew that is delivered to his fly-infested room, the other still obsessed with gathering in enough money to survive.

Shot on 16mm in film 4:3 aspect ratio gives the footage a feel of a 1980’s television show. There’s a beige dog who lives in a beige cardboard box kennel, a beige mouse in a cage, beige wallpaper. Everything is stained.

We’re asked to witness on-screen situations where a vulnerable adult (played sympathetically by Tony Way) is taken advantage of, fed with booze and then suffers brutal and ultimately unjust retribution at the hand shoe of Liz (portrayed rather brilliantly by Ella Smith). We’re asked to witness a child sleeping rough without his parents noticing, and being ambivalent about the idea of foster care.

While I, Daniel Blake held up a campaigning mirror to the UK welfare system, Ray & Liz looks through a mirror and offers no solutions. It documents history rather than asking if these situations still happen today. It’s not only unentertaining, but it’s uninspiring. Poverty porn with no ask.

What makes Ray & Liz interesting is the context that writer/director Richard Billingham is documenting his own family. He’s the older child making the tape recordings, watching his Dad be scammed out of his factory redundancy money and living under the iron fist of his Mum. Which moments from your childhood would you pick to project onto the big screen to share your family and upbringing with a wide audience? Is it revenge? Is it a warning? Is it art?

Ray & Liz is a tortuous 108 minute watch with its story of neglect, squalor, depression and addiction. Screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until Wednesday 20 March

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