“Ray & Liz” is a melancholic family drama which observes its human subjects and their squalid living environment with considerable emotional detachment. While this is surely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, it works to some degree as a fascinating presentation of personal memories via fictional approach, and you may cringe or wince for good reasons as sensing dark feelings hovering around the screen.
At first, the movie opens with an old man named Ray (Patrick Romer) beginning his another alcoholic day in his small and shabby residence inside one of Black County council flat buildings. He has lived alone since his separation from his wife Liz (Deirdre Kelly), and he usually spends his days on drinking homebrewed booze provided by one of his neighbours, who does not like Ray much but delivers the booze as much as he gets paid.
And then the movie moves backward to the Ray and Liz’s early married life during the 1980s. They have two sons, but neither Ray, played by Justin Salinger at this point, nor Liz, played by Ella Smith at this point, is particularly interested in taking care of their little sons, and their tiny residence is strewn with squalor and several pets including a dog and a pair of gerbils, which are also mostly unattended on the whole.
And then we meet Liz’s dopey cousin Lol (Tony Way), who is supposed to look after Liz’s younger son Jason (Callum Slater) while Liz and Ray go outside along with their older son Richard (Jacob Tuton) for shopping. Liz warns to Lol that he should not touch any booze, but, of course, he soon finds himself quite tempted when a young neighbor named William (Sam Gittins) comes into the residence and then finds bottles of whiskey and other liquors hidden somewhere in the residence, and it does not take much time for him to accept more than one glass of drink from William.
When Liz and Ray eventually return to their home, they soon behold a mess in the house, and Liz understandably becomes quite pissed about that, though there is nothing much she can do except expressing her anger upon Lol’s nearly unconscious body. Some time later, she happens to learn of what really happened via a small coincidental piece of evidence, but, for a reason unexplained to us, she decides to destroy it without much hesitation.
After a brief flash-forward scene showing Ray at present, the movie moves to another past period in Ray and Liz’s married life. Now their two sons grow up much, but they still remain neglected by their parents, and Liz is usually more occupied with piecing puzzles together while her husband is always ready to give her a cup of tea.
And we observe how their two sons have managed to live for themselves as residing in one of the Black County flat buildings along with their parents. While Richard, played Sam Plant at this point, has been silently insulated in his own world, Jason, played by Joshua Millard-Lloyd at this point, often goes outside for playing with his school friends, and he finds himself sleeping alone in a shed during one cold night because, well, that is more preferable for him to going back to his home. That leads to a very serious circumstance which could cost his life, but he soon finds himself staying in a place where he receives a lot more care and kindness than before, and he does not complain at all when he is subsequently notified that he is going to be sent to a foster home.
When Ray and Liz come to learn that their younger son will be separated from him, they are not particularly upset about this change, though they feel a bit displeased about the fact that they will accordingly receive less welfare money. In case of Richard, he also wants to be taken away from his crummy parents, but he is only told that he is soon going to able to leave them anyway as an adult, and there is nothing he can do except waiting for a few more years.
While it is inspired by director/writer Richard Billingham’s troubled childhood years under his problematic parents, the movie mostly restrains itself as seldom delving into the stark emotional currents surrounding its main characters. Shot in 1.33:1 ratio by cinematographer Daniel Landin, the movie is constantly filled with stuffy ambience coupled with the daunting sense of misery and frustration, and there are a number of striking visual moments throughout the film, but it feels rather hollow as it does not provide much insight or understanding on Liz and Ray’s relationship or their increasingly tenuous connection with their children.
At least, the main cast members of the movie ably suggest some glimpses of life and personality under Billingham’s competent direction. While Smith and Salinger are flawlessly connected with Deirdre Kelly and Patrick Romer, Millard-Lloyd and Pine are also solid in their crucial supporting roles, and the same thing can be said about Tony Way and Sam Gittins.
In conclusion, “Ray & Liz” feels a bit too distant in terms of story and characters, so I hesitate to recommend it to you, but I guess its adamantly detached attitude to its human subjects is the whole point, and that tells us a lot about how Billingham feels about his parents. He surely survived, and now he simply shows us how bad and pathetic his parents were – and that is all for us.