Following in the footsteps of Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, and Steve McQueen, amongst others, Birmingham-born artist Richard Billingham makes the jump from the gallery to feature films with Ray & Liz. But the fact that Billingham is a photographer known for portraiture is key to what doesn’t work about his film. Ostensibly autobiographical, and loosely connected to a series of photographs Billingham took of his family, over the years, Ray & Liz chronicles two young boys and their parents, the drunk but mostly affable Ray (Justin Salinger) and the gargantuan, frequently furious Liz (Ella Smith) living on the fringes of British society. Almost all of the action is confined to small, cramped living spaces of government subsidized homes, with peeling paint, scraped-off wallpaper, dirty carpeting and crummy furniture. Taking place over several years, the film’s three discreet sections observe Ray (Patrick Romer), who lives alone in a small flat, and whose penchant for drinking the days away becomes the film’s through-line.
Cinematographer Daniel Landin, who did stunning work on Under the Skin, ensures that Ray & Liz frequently looks beautiful. But it’s a shallow beauty — at its worst a kind of indie film affectation, Wes Anderson by way of Mike Leigh and Terence Davies. Shallow focus robs the images of any depth, so the focus is on patterns, kitschy tchotchkes, dollops of light through billowing window curtains and the like. The spaces don’t feel lived-in or authentic; they feel art-directed and stage managed. When Billingham cuts between two simple, static camera setups, occasionally throwing in an insert shot in extreme close-up to break from the back-and-forth monotony, his efforts register mainly as aesthetic posturing. The camera only occasionally moves, and there are a couple of totally unmotivated zooms that mostly just distract. There’s neither flow nor rhythm — no sense of how to put together moving images. Although now a film director, Billingham comes across mainly as a pretty good still photographer.
Published as part of July 2019’s Before We Vanish.