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Ray & Liz review – Richard Billingham’s extraordinary family album brought to life

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/03/2019 Wendy Ide

In 1996, Richard Billingham’s landmark photography book Ray’s a Laugh became an art world sensation. The candid shots of his family home in a Birmingham tower block were a fascinating clash of chintz, trinkets and something else, more surreal and unpredictable – a cat hovering in midair, or Billingham’s father, Ray, lurching forward and captured, apparently surfing the ashtray-hued carpet at an impossible angle.

Related: Richard Billingham: ‘Statistically, I should be in prison, dead or homeless’

Twenty-three years have passed since then, but Billingham’s eye for the details that nail his unsettling autobiographical portraits remains as acute as ever. This stingingly intimate first feature revisits the Billingham household in three periods, loosely strung together and shot through a curtain of cigarette smoke. Billingham uses extreme closeups to emphasise the kind of minutiae that burn into a child’s memory: a housefly feasting on the sticky rings of spilled homebrew; the trickle of blood from the nose of an unconscious uncle; the solicitous ritual exchange of a cup of tea. Casting is key in roles that could have tipped over into grotesques: Ella Smith in particular is superb as scowling matriarch Liz, enthroned amid jigsaws and rolling waves of displeasure. It’s gruelling at times, but the film is extraordinary and unflinching. And remarkably, it’s made with as much love as anger.

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