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Film review: Mrs Lowry & Son

28 August 2019

Stephen Brown finds an artist’s biopic well acted but not very cinematic

Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall in Mrs Lowry & Son

Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall in Mrs Lowry & Son

AS ROD GARNER’s recent article (Faith, 9 August) pointed out, the artist L. S. Lowry captured in paint what Wordsworth called “the ache that lies at the heart of things”.

Watching Mrs Lowry & Son (Cert. PG), one can well understand why Laurie Lowry (Timothy Spall) was himself in so much pain. His bedridden mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), behaves monstrously towards him as he lovingly tends to her every need. Capricious, neurotic, imperious, manipulative, and snobbish — you name it, she has it in spades. He’s truly a suffering servant who creeps up to the attic and paints.

Elizabeth despises his preoccupation with those weighed down by the sheer effort of living. Their gritty nobility in the face of it all forms a kind of tragic protest. “Hope’s what gets people through life, Mother.” It wouldn’t be far-fetched to discern in Lowry’s work the participation of the Crucified in the forsakenness of ordinary working people. In the film, although we get hints of the artist’s insights into the human condition, the primary concern is with the difficulties of navigating around this demanding parent. We learn something of a religious background and occasional glimpses of glory.

Elizabeth seems to have forgotten any of this. She tells Laurie that she has never been happy since her confirmation back in 1868. It is now 1934, not that there is any reference to the state of the world and the gathering storm of Nazism. The entire film, bar a few cutaway shots to adjacent locations and residents, is set in the Lowrys’ dingy Pendlebury home. It rains a lot. “God’s tears,” says Laurie.

Both Elizabeth’s late husband (“a damn fool”) and child (she wanted a girl) are a disappointment. She yearns to return to the middle-class existence that financially ruined Laurie’s father. The problem with the piece is its failure to expose the inner life of either character. We never get an insight into the space between the sheer quantity of words, which betrays the radio and stage origins of what is in effect a two-hander play. The director, Adrian Noble, who has had an impressive career in theatre, discloses his cinematic inexperience by an excess of telling rather than just showing. The copious soundtrack doesn’t help, frequently overbearing in its insistence on underlining every remark.

Redgrave acts her socks off. Spall, so spellbinding in Mr Turner (2014), is forced into playing an artist this time when one is bewildered about how his introversion feeds any kind of psychic energy. Mother and son occasionally unite through a mutual love of music. We hear strains of the autumn sequence in Mahler’s Song of the Earth, clearly a reference to Elizabeth’s own stage of life. “Life at the beginning held so much promise,” but no longer. Laurie sees things differently. “There’s a beauty in everything. . . We’re all captured in a picture,” he declares.

He doesn’t pine for any release: he is content to share in the world’s enduring anguish, and finds means of transcending it. Above all, it is that sense of forsakenness with which he identifies, and which he strives to redeem.

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