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  Ray & Liz Raise A Laugh
Year: 2018
Director: Richard Billingham
Stars: Justin Salinger, Ella Smith, Patrick Romer, Deirdre Kelly, Tony Way, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Sam Dodd, Zoe Holness, Kaine Zajaz, Andrew Jefferson Tierney, David Heeks, Jacob Tuton, James Eeles, Jason Billingham
Genre: Drama, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Ageing Ray (Patrick Romer) lives in a council flat in Birmingham, and spends his days when he is not asleep, drinking from plastic bottles of alcohol, for he is an alcoholic who exists to drink himself, if not to oblivion, then at least to some level of dull awareness about his existence. He has a minder who brings him the drink every morning, and remarks that the bedroom Ray mostly stays in is infested with flies, but how did he end up in these dire circumstances? You can trace it back to when he was let go from his factory job back at the end of the nineteen-seventies, around twenty years ago; he lost his redundancy payment and was reduced to drinking his days away with wife Liz...

Like Ray, Liz was played by two performers, the younger Ray by Justin Salinger and Liz mainly by Ella Smith, though misery porn documentary star Deirdre Kelly showed up at the end to appear as her nearing the end of her life. But this was a biopic, in the main, though its presentation was as slice of life drama, as it was writer director Richard Billingham's try at capturing his lost youth: the couple here were his actual parents, and they had in a prolonged decline drunken themselves to death shortly before his photographs of them, intended for a painting project, made Billingham a darling of the art world. This kind of rhapsodising over what was a pretty awful time can make one suspicious.

Just what were the motives of those who loved Billingham's art shows and books that published the photographs? Were they genuinely moved by the plight of these souls abandoned by society, or did they find them amusing - did they make them laugh? That the reaction was as much a part of the artwork was the imagery was also an important way of interpreting the film; you were never under any belief that Billingham was anything less than sincere in his searching of his past to try and make sense of what must have seemed utterly senseless at the time, but there were those audiences who chuckled at some fairly horrendous lifestyles and an unsentimental portrait of the disadvantaged.

Yet there was compassion here: while both Ray and Liz can be callous, even violent in Liz's case, the film does not judge them harshly, merely takes in their predicament and accepts it as unacceptable. We move between three time periods in the main, the nineties "present" when Ray is basically close to bedridden with his addiction, the late seventies when they had their own house and two kids to bring up (the director and his younger brother Jason), and the mid-eighties when they are stuck in a council flat eking out a living on benefits, which sees Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) so neglected that his life is in danger. Some accused this of not having sympathetic characters, but your heart goes out to the little boy whose parents don't check he's going to school, getting enough to eat, or even returning home at night.

The aftermath of Bonfire Night, where Jason slept in a garden shed and nearly froze to death, sees him actively wanting to get away from his mother and father and into foster care - Richard, now a teenager, asks if he can go to, but is turned down because he is almost old enough to look after himself. But then, Ray and Liz are old enough to look after themselves, and they are very far from capable of doing so, therefore the helplessness of the situation is hard to get over, nor are you supposed to. Whether you are provoked into taking action once watching this or if you feel there's nothing you can do for people who have no grasp of their own lives and are descending into an early grave, it was true there was a sense of futility engendered by watching extremely precise recreations of the squalor of yesteryear. That's a problem anyone who has survived a tough, extended run of ill fortune will have: what are you meant to do with these terrible memories? Live with them? Ignore them? This film offers no real solution, as maybe there isn't one.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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