Mrs Lowry & Son review: Artist biopic is a stiff, unadventurous affair

The writing is sharp and insightful when it comes to class and opportunity, but suffers under the direction of theatre veteran Adrian Noble

Clarisse Loughrey
Tuesday 03 September 2019 17:10
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Mrs Lowry & Son trailer

Dir: Adrian Noble. Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Timothy Spall, Stephen Lord, David Schaal, Wendy Morgan, and Michael Keogh. PG, 91 mins

The stage and the screen aren’t always natural bedfellows. Mrs Lowry & Son is proof of that. Written by Martyn Hesford and adapted from his own play, the film is a snapshot of the life of Lancashire artist LS Lowry. It’s set in the years before he found success for his scenes of industrial life, all busy with small, colourful figures lovingly referred to as “matchstick men”. Hesford’s writing is sharp and insightful when it comes to class and opportunity. But under the direction of theatre veteran Adrian Noble, it’s an often stiff and unadventurous affair.

We spend time with Lowry (Timothy Spall) as he cares for his bedridden mother Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) in their home in Greater Manchester. As depicted by Hesford, it’s a poisonous relationship: Lowry’s late father had landed the family in terrible debt, forcing them to relocate from the genteel finery of Victoria Park to Pendlebury, surrounded on all sides by smoke-spewing factories. Elizabeth has remained steadfastly bitter about her fate – she still clings to old dreams of becoming a concert pianist – and projects her husband’s failures onto her son.

Lowry, in turn, is desperate for validation that he’s doomed never to receive. He works hard to pay back his father’s debts, but lives an isolated and miserable life because of it. Although he’s compelled to paint, he must do so only in the dead of night – when his mother’s fast asleep – up in the house’s cramped attic. Elizabeth sees his nocturnal toils as a mere “hobby”. She feels no shame in telling him that she’s never liked a single one of his paintings. Their grubby realism reminds her too much of what she’s lost. When Lowry receives a letter from a London gallery owner interested in exhibiting his work, he hides it from her. What could easily have been a straightforward chamber piece about two bickering washouts is, in Hesford’s hands, rich with the frustrations that come out of the immobilising powers of class. These two individuals are made to feel like their world, and all the opportunities that come with it, are as small as the bedroom Elizabeth spends her days in.

Their animosity comes from a clash of outlooks: Lowry has made peace with the past, seeing wonder and beauty in his surroundings, though they may be superficially gloomy. Elizabeth, meanwhile, has bought into the idea that her circumstances have made her somehow lesser. She obsesses over the opinions of the local newspaper critic and of her well-dressed neighbour, hoping to be accepted as one of them. Redgrave – who does wonders with the role, of course – never allows her character to be too easily defined. “I haven’t been cheerful since 1868, the day of my confirmation,” she tells Lowry. It’s a line that sums up all her contradictions perfectly. She’s funny, but not a joke. She’s tragic, but not pitiful. She’s cruel, but not a monster.

Spall holds his own, though Lowry spends most of his time serving as his mother’s emotional punch bag. His face flinches every time she launches into one of her tirades, as he does his best to hunker down and deflect her barbs. He’ll reply mostly in spluttering, faltering sentences. Then he’ll go downstairs, clutch the gallery owner’s letter in his hands, and repeat those rare words that seem to truly understand him – the ones that describe his paintings as a “sheer expression of feelings”. It was only five years ago that Spall portrayed the great JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s biopic of the artist, but these two films have little in common. Leigh’s work sought to explain how a man can achieve brilliance, while Mrs Lowry & Son shows what can keep him from it.

Yet, there’s a clumsiness in how these ideas are expressed onscreen. Noble struggles with the play’s one-room setting, designed to cement its themes of suffocation and stagnation. While he doesn’t commit to this sense of claustrophobia, his attempts to break out of that environment – from the frequent flashbacks to Lowry’s occasional jaunts outdoors – add nothing of meaning to the film.

The biggest departure from the source material is a final reel trip to the painter’s dedicated museum in Salford. It’s shot with a veneration usually reserved for hallowed places, and although intended to be inspiring, it just feels like an ad. While there’s been no shortage of successful adaptations of theatrical work (from Shakespeare to Amadeus), the less dazzling of their numbers more often than not struggled with these same location issues. It’s the inevitable barrier that arises when the restrictions of the stage are met with the boundless possibility of film. Mrs Lowry & Son is just the latest to feel lost in translation.

Mrs Lowry & Son is released in UK cinemas on 30 August

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