Ray & Liz, written and directed by photographer-turned-filmmaker Richard Billingham, shows how effective a film can be when it tells a personal story. The movie, based on Billingham’s own childhood, tells the story of a family in the late 1980’s U.K. whose lives are disrupted by poverty and alcoholism.
There have been plenty of films about families facing poverty, especially as of late, but none have felt as personal and sympathetic as Ray & Liz. If this movie had come out five years ago, it would have been hailed as a timely and relevant masterpiece. Even though the timeliness factor isn’t quite as true anymore, it is still a masterful film nonetheless.
In no way is the movie an easy watch, but it isn’t meant to be one. Instead, the film is meant to be a brutal and unflinching look at how the lower class is being exploited by the world only to be left behind while the upper classes benefit from the hard work of the less fortunate. Perhaps the most admirable thing about the movie is how Billingham is able to make it heavily political without being in-your-face about it.
The film approaches these characters with so much humanity that it would be nearly impossible not to sympathize with them. Although their actions aren’t always the most likable, you can’t help but feel bad for them, especially if you have ever found yourself facing as much desperation. Additionally, this is a rare movie that actually uses the lack of a strong character arc quite well, as the stagnation helps build the themes.
In many ways, Ray & Liz is one of the most heartbreaking films you will see all year, but that makes it all the more effective. Billingham manages to drive home the horrible situation in which the characters found themselves without feeling like he is complaining or being insincere. Some of the images and scenes in this movie are undeniably haunting and will stick with you long after the film ends.
The performances help make this emotion even more believable. Ella Smith gives one of the best performances of the year as Liz. Unfortunately, with this being a smaller-scale movie that won’t receive much play outside of art houses, her performance is unlikely to receive the awards attention that it deserves. Justin Salinger also does a good job as Ray, but more often than not, it is Smith who steals the show.
Billingham’s background as a photographer is also extremely evident, as the film is shot in a way that is very aesthetically-driven. One could take a capture of the screen at any moment and find an image that is worthy of being displayed in a gallery. The celluloid cinematography is truly breathtaking, among the best that you will see all year.
Ray & Liz is a movie that is both beautifully-shot and excellently-written. Although you certainly won’t finish the film feeling warm and fuzzy inside, it is certainly worth a watch, as small, personal movies like this aren’t made very often anymore.
Ray & Liz opens in theaters on July 10.