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Review: Ray & Liz (Richard Billingham)

Tony Way in Ray & Liz

The eye of an artist turns inward in Ray & Liz, myopic, unblinking, seeing all that it may yet none that it may not. This is a sparse, formalistic movie, yet full (too full?) of the most vivid emotions, spilling out over one another in extended scenes that cannot claim a clear, identifiable purpose, and that are all the more fascinating for this feature. No longer are we witnessing entertainment as we know it, but stark, vibrant expressions of reality, filtered through cinema's distorted lens - it becomes impossibly real, unbearably emotive, stylized and structured as reality itself never can be. There are many things that Ray & Liz could have been, many more familiar creative expressions passed over en route to this odd, bold expression, called to attention by their own absence, and the presence of something quite different, quite new in their place. But those things would not have been Richard Billingham's Ray & Liz. This is his story, and this is the way he must tell it.

If nothing else, this is a formidable evocation of emotional states foremost, stripping through the viewer's guardedness by stripping through its own and fixating on what lingers for Billingham in his childhood memories. He is clear-eyed now, with the benefit of hindsight, context, and ever more understanding: these objective eyes see the depression, the squalor, the love and the causes behind the inability of individuals to show such love. Billingham's motion portraits are configured as broad strokes, each in a striking new shade, clashing against one another with the full force of decades' worth of rationalization. A lifetime of pain is expressed through a single, swift act of violence, or a solitary tear; a heart full of love is represented by three blankets, a warm electric fire, or by another solitary tear, this time all the more crushing. A cramped aspect ratio traps these characters within the strictures of the British class system, and caustic, vaguely absurd humour only emphasizes the despair in its resilience against hope.

Every actor here is quite exceptional - all perfectly cast and perfectly directed, and acted with sublime compassion. Young Joshua Millard-Lloyd is bracingly brilliant, displaying the kind of unaffected sincerity and maturity of which an established actor of many decades would be immensely proud; British reality TV star Deirdre Kelly's brief appearance is marked by the honesty and verisimilitude of her performance, and by the devastating sadness that can no longer be held at bay, and that envelops Ray + Liz's final scene in its graphic red haze. This is a single view on a singular world, an eye turned inward, focused intently on its subject's most visceral qualities, and to dramatic effect.

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