Alcoholics tend to isolate themselves, both physically and emotionally. Advanced alcoholics will do it to extremes. Ray, one half of this movie’s title couple, is introduced in a form of isolation that may turn many viewers’ stomachs.
He occupies a single room in public housing in England’s Black Country. The room has one window and is infested with fruit flies. Every morning, Sid, a potbellied, longhaired neighbor, brings Ray three long plastic bottles filled with a thick brown liquid. Home brew, they call it later. Every day Ray drinks the bottles dry and looks out the window. Sometimes he listens to the radio. Sometimes he sees his estranged wife, Liz, on the street and calls out to her, asking her to visit. He doesn’t eat. And that’s it.
But then there are the memories.
Written and directed by the artist Richard Billingham, “Ray & Liz” is an extension of his work as a photographer, which subsists largely of portraits of his own family. This is a fiction film, with actors playing all the real-life characters, but Billingham has crafted it with a documentary concern for detail. Ray’s life in his lonely room is the frame for two extended flashback sequences.
In one, set in the late 1970s, the younger Ray and Liz entrust their toddler, Jason, to the care of a relative, Lol, who proves a miserable babysitter after being inveigled by a loutish family friend into raiding the household liquor supply. Liz physically attacks Lol on returning home to find him passed out, little Jason holding a bread knife in one hand. (The impish family friend put it there.) As it happens, Jason, by fooling around with his older brother Richard’s cassette recorder, captured the truth behind Lol’s stumble. But once Liz discovers this, she just destroys the tape. The next segment, several years later, depicts the fallout from another instance of adult neglect.
While these episodes are arguably represented as Ray’s remembrances, they are told from an omniscient perspective that records Ray and Liz’s absence more than their presence. The couple don’t get up to much: Ray likes his home brew, Liz likes her cigarettes, jigsaw puzzles and tattoos, and money’s always too tight. When the couple are not sleeping — and they do sleep a bit — they’re agitated about that condition.
The American filmmaker John Waters once deemed his characters “the filthiest people alive.” This picture is suffused with Britishness to the extent that one could describe it as a cross between Waters and Terence Davies, the English director whose portraits of the past have a similar saturation, but are much cleaner and more genteel. The stoves in the homes Ray and Liz shared with their young children, as simulated here, are so caked in grime you could catch something nasty just by touching a burner switch.
Performed with absolute commitment by its cast (Justin Salinger and Ella Smith play the younger versions of the title characters), “Ray & Liz” is a quietly harrowing movie. Billingham risks tedium, though, in withholding anything like an inner life for any of its characters until the movie’s very end. The sequence in which the penny drops is moving, to be sure, but not enough to entirely relieve the vexing impassive feeling the movie generates before it.
Ray & Liz
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.