Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Mrs Lowry & Son

Timothy Spall in Mrs Lowry & Son

Martyn Hesford adapts his play for the screen with this very stagey and often uneasy two-hander, notable for fine work from Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall, although their characters will drive you mad.

The third feature from theatre-intensive director Adrian Noble, it’s not a biopic that spans years in the life of a creative figure (like Mr. Turner, which featured Spall as J.M.W. Turner) but a study of a relatively short period of time in the low-key, anti-social existence of Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887 – 1976), and his at times forcedly doting relationship with his impossible mother Elizabeth.

It’s worth noting straight away that Timothy is some 14 years older than Lowry would have been in 1934, but that doesn’t really matter, and that Redgrave is currently 82 but, as she’s played so many dotty and/or domineering seniors for so long, it’s rather like she’s been 82 for about 30 years.

Furthermore, the uncinematic aspects are clear from the outset, as we open with Spall’s Lowry looking directly at the camera as he discusses his art in an interior monologue, and much of the ‘action’ thereafter barely leaves a series of depressing rooms in a two-up, two-down in rainy Pendlebury, Lancashire.

Working as a rent collector by day, Spall’s Laurence returns home one evening and we’re introduced to his powerfully manipulative, if bedridden, mother straight away. There’s a whole ritual about making sure the door is locked to keep out criminals from “the working classes”, she carries on about posher days when people “smelled of lavender soap”, and she’s deeply suspicious of where he’s been that afternoon.

We know he’s been strolling the town and the moors looking for inspiration, but she doesn’t like that one bit, because he might be escaping her control, and despite his best efforts to cook, clean and entertain her, she’s increasingly cruel, regularly calling him a disappointment and even, at one point, describing him as ugly.

Laurence spends his evenings in solitude working on his then-underappreciated paintings, and when it transpires that one might be bought by an art specialist in London, who also suggests an exhibition of Lowry’s work could be a possibility, the very notion sends Elizabeth into a quiet frenzy. But not just due to the fact that he might leave the house for a few weeks: oh no, it’s because she’s a raging snob, and she not-so-secretly despises his depictions of ordinary people, or even “the poor”. The humiliation! What will the neighbours say???

If you can bear the almost claustrophobic minimalism, the nasty co-dependency and the grim Britishness of Noble and Hesford’s film then there’s no doubt that Spall and Redgrave deliver wonderful performances here, worth celebrating. But if such notions chill you to the bone then you’d better stay well away.

And don’t forget: “You can’t go wrong with prunes and custard!”

Reviewer Rating

Mrs Lowry & Son (PG) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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