MRS LOWRY & SON. Starring: Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall. Directed by Adrian Noble. Rated PG (Mild themes and nudity). 91min.
This biographical British film dramatises the life of well known Manchester artist, L.S. Lowry, who is best known for his evocative depictions of urban and industrial life in Britain, and his images of matchstick men-like humans. It focuses on the relationship between Lowry and his ageing mother, Elizabeth. The film is set against Greater Manchester in the mid-1930s. The Director of the film, Adrian Noble was an ex-director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon.
- S. Lowry (Timothy Spall) worked as a debt collector by day and painted by night in the attic of his working class house in Lancashire, UK., after his mother had gone to sleep. The majority of the film’s scenes take place in his mother’s bedroom. Lowry lived in the house with his overbearing mother, and his career as an artist blossomed after she died in 1939.
Bed-ridden, and constantly complaining, Elizabeth took every opportunity to criticise her son, and disapprove of everything he did. She took special delight in abusing her son with personal insults (“what woman would have you?”), and cruel exchanges. She made it clear that she hated his paintings, and she tried earnestly to dissuade him from further painting because he was a “total disappointment” to her. Loathing his paintings of Manchester’s industrial landscape, and disappointed with her own life she projected her frustrations onto her son - she “could have been a professional pianist” in a much better neighbourhood, she told him. In this and other ways, the film tellingly highlights British social class divisions that existed at the time, and which Lowry superbly captured in his paintings. Uncharacteristically, but only because her neighbour liked a picture, Elizabeth warmed to the painting her son did of a ships in a canal and gave him two shillings to submit it to an art exhibition in Manchester. Painting for him was always an expression of feeling for what he saw - a “way of life” - but also an escape from his mother, whom he loved.
Redgrave and Spall are two superb actors. Spall comes from his Cannes Best Actor Award for his portrayal of the artist, Joseph Turner, in Mike Leigh’s excellent “Mr. Turner” in 2014. Redgrave has a legion of finely-nuanced character parts behind her which unequivocally has established her as a leading, much-loved actress on and off the stage. They are two first-class performers doing what they can with a rather sad story to tell.
Spall and Redgrave are almost in every scene. Elizabeth’s needy behaviour is obvious, as is also Lowry’s extraordinary tolerance, and their behaviour is predictable as their grim interactions unfold. Criticised for the worthlessness of his paintings, Lowry never had a chance in his mother’s eyes. “Find things beautiful that no one else does”, Elizabeth tells her son with contempt. The genius of Lowry’s art, however, is he distinctively painted what he saw and felt in bleakness.
The scripting and direction of the film limit the extent to which Lowry and his mother reveal the reasons behind their behaviour. It is unclear why Elizabeth is so vulnerable and embittered, and why Lowry tolerated his mother’s bullying for so long in the way that he did. The film concludes by inviting the viewer to appreciate Lowry’s work in a purpose-built art Center that holds his work in Salford Quays, UK. Ironically, Lowry turned down the offer of a knighthood from the British Government, because he felt there was no point in it, “if his mother wasn’t there to see it”.
Despite the grimness of the real-life story line, this is a movie that deservedly earns its reputation from the consummate acting skills of Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall, who act brilliantly together, going head to toe for almost the full length of the movie. The film becomes a showcase for their acting prowess, and the movie is photographed with distinction. Spall’s acting is tender, patient, and forgiving; while Redgrave’s acting is bitter, acerbic and aggressive and Redgrave reinforces her reputation for being a mistress of the delivery of withering one-liners.
This is a film about a very sad relationship between a famous artist and his mother, expertly acted.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released November 28, 2019