FILM REVIEW: Mrs Lowry & Son

Writer: Martyn Hesford

Director: Adrian Noble

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

It is surprising that it has taken so long for the life of artist L S Lowry to be dramatised on the cinema screen. After all, his story has inspired a ballet, stage and radio plays and a number of documentaries. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Martyn Hesford’s script for Mrs Lowry & Son, instead of being a straightforward biography, concentrates on the relationship between Lowry and his ailing and embittered mother, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Lowry (Vanessa Redgrave) is very unhappy with her social status. After years of living beyond her means she is reduced to surviving in a two up/two down terraced house in Pendlebury. Bedridden Elizabeth has no diversions other than to brood on her diminished state and criticise her son Laurie, later to be better known as L S Lowry (Timothy Spall). Laurie’s daily work as a rent collector and his paintings depicting daily Lancashire life do not fulfil Elizabeth’s social aspirations.

Author Martyn Hesford has adapted his stage play to the cinema. It is appropriate, therefore, that director Adrian Noble is better known for his work on stage than on the screen. Mrs Lowry & Sonis essentially a two character/single room play and Noble retains the claustrophobic atmosphere in the adaptation. Even when Lowry leaves his home he is shown as surrounded by walls and buildings with only a single scene set in a pastoral, rather than industrial, landscape. In a local reference point it always seems to be raining in the outdoor scenes. However, Noble cannot resist ending the film with what looks very like a promotional advertisement for the art gallery at The Lowry that commemorates the works of the artist.

Martyn Hesford’s script mixes high emotion with surprising humour. In a fine in-joke Lowry strikes a pose that will later be recorded in a painting- napping on a wall hat in lap- only to tumble from his perch. Lowry was known to have an off-centre sense of humour and Hesford suggests this may have developed from his experiences as a rent collector – encountering miners bathing naked in the street as they were too dirty to enter their homes. But most of the humour comes from the unbelievably crass remarks uttered by Elizabeth Lowry. After her son tenderly promises never to leave her Elizabeth replies no woman would be willing to have him anyway.

A less skilled actor than Vanessa Redgrave might have turned Elizabeth into a grotesque pantomime villain. But Redgrave shows how Elizabeth is truly suffering even if it is self-inflicted. Redgrave creates a character seemingly with no redeeming features, incapable of empathy and motivated by self-pity and snobbish prejudice. It ought to be unbearable to watch but you can’t take your eyes off Redgrave.

In the Q&A that followed the screening Timothy Spall suggested Lowry liked to see himself as an outsider; that as a rent collector he was both part of the community and a pariah. Certainly the defining characteristic of Spall’s performance is defiance. Spall suggests Lowry is determined to retain his artistic vision despite the prejudiced responses of his mother and the art critics. Although Lowry is clearly desperate for maternal approval his own standards will not allow him to pander. Despite the anger underlying the performance Spall brings the sense of someone who is content in his own skin – Lowry is simply a man who paints.

Mrs Lowry & Sonis a gentle and surprisingly funny examination of the issues that may have motivated the artworks of L S Lowry and a masterpiece of acting.

Out now. | Image: Joseph Scanlon

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