Film review: Mrs Lowry & Son (3/5)
His interpretations of industrial Lancashire have made LS Lowry’s paintings amongst the most readily recognisable, even to those with little interest in the arts. He captured a cityscape in the first half of the 20th century that was characterised by rows of terraced, soot-covered streets and factories, populated by tiny, anonymous workers, often referred to as ‘matchstick men and women’ that made his work most memorable.
Yet Lowry, played here by Timothy Spall, was never a full-time artist, spending 40 years of his life as a rent collector and living with his snobbish, bedridden mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) in their modest two-up two-down in Pendlebury, near Manchester.
Their relationship is the subject of this new film, directed by Adrian Noble, observing the intimacy and tensions between them as Elizabeth suffocates her bachelor son’s hopes of pursuing his artistic ambitions. She never misses a chance to tell him what a disappointment he is to her and how his father had left them in a seemingly-endless battle with debt and near-penury.
The film begs us either to pity a man subjugated by a controlling parent, or feel frustration at his own weakness in allowing it to happen. These contrasting emotions are handled with a delicate balance of bitterness and loving devotion conveyed by both mother and son.
Spall, who reminded the Festival Theatre audience that his own mother had died three weeks earlier, gives a masterclass in acting through facial expression. Without a word being spoken we share his sense of rejection, hurt, frustration, tenderness and anger. Redgrave’s timing is particularly effective in her frequent put-downs that only Maggie Smith and the late Thora Hird could have equalled.
Almost the entire action is focused on the years leading up to Elizabeth’s death in 1939 and, as such, takes place in her bedroom. The ground rules of the relationship are established early on and the story could have been condensed by half an hour. We see only glimpses of Lowry ‘escaping’ to the attic to paint, and observing the factory workers that influenced him, and I couldn’t help thinking a more rounded film would have embraced Lowry’s later years, using the frustrations of the mother-son relationship in flashback. We are told at the end that he had his first solo show in London in the year of his mother’s death and we’re left wondering if he was planning for this before she died, or whether he simply enjoyed a big break.
In spite of his mother’s lack of encouragement, success hardly eluded Lowry. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1962; and he served as a visiting tutor at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. In later years he earned good money as a painter, moving to the affluent village of Mottram-in-Longdendale. His mother would finally have found reason to be proud of her son.
Mrs Lowry & Son (PG, 1hr 32 mins) was a world premiere screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and is nominated for the 2019 Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film