L.S. Lowry was in his early fifties by the time his artwork started to find widespread acclaim, before which he’d painted privately at home, only for his elderly mother to be dismissive of his talents. Today he’s regarded as one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced, so it’s hardly surprising that someone should have had the bright idea of making a biopic. It’s just a shame that Mrs Lowry & Son is so far from being a work of art.
Starting life as a BBC Radio 4 play (as did last year’s The Favourite, as it happens) back in 2012, Martyn Hesford adapted his script for the stage the following year. In truth, this new film version is fatally hobbled by staginess and a sense that it would work far better in a different medium. A major culprit here must be Adrian Noble, a hugely experienced theatre director who does little more in this case than train the camera on the lead actors and hope for the best.
As the title suggests, the main characters are Laurie Lowry (Timothy Spall) and his bed-bound mother Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) in 1934 when Laurie’s hopes of artistic success are still just a dream. There are few other characters and none make much of a substantial contribution to proceedings, so the lion’s share of the film plays out with two characters in one small room, a tightly confined study of hope, repression and family ties. To bring that to life, we’d need to be in the hands of a visionary director, but we’re not. Instead this has the sort of flat, uninspired look that can give British cinema a bad name, up to and including flashes of slo-mo and repeated cuts to finished Lowry paintings to hammer the bleeding point home.
Yes, the hangdog-featured Spall was born to play this part, though one fears that he’s essayed ‘Unexpressive Introverted Man for Whom Things Come to a Head’ to better effect before now in a Mike Leigh film or two. Redgrave is gifted some fine, barbed lines and the pair spar together impressively, but that alone isn’t enough to compel the viewer for the whole running time. As it stands it’s not unlike a long, dour, Lancashire spin on Steptoe & Son.
Nor is that the end of its problems. Very little actually happens, beyond a baffling sub-plot involving a neighbour. Lowry might have immortalised working class Salford, but his mother is vocal in her hatred of it, and it feels uncomfortable that there’s no positive, substantial working class presence to contrast with this. It’s also lumbered with a bland, identikit piano-and-strings score and a clunky post-script shamelessly filched from the Doctor Who episode about Vincent van Gogh (on the plus side, though, there’s a brief scene where Laurie listens to Frank Randle’s Old Hiker routine on the wireless).
The film received a Gala Premiere at – where else? – The Lowry, followed by a Q&A with Spall, Redgrave and Noble, deftly chaired by Mark Radcliffe. It’s quite an experience. There’s a lot of talk about the elusive true nature of Lowry and his work. In discussing the location filming, Noble reveals that it was difficult to find parts of the modern-day neighbourhood that wouldn’t require digital touching-up, and there’s something achingly ironic about this notion of a film about Lowry in which the real Salford was painted out.
Most strikingly, on the night Redgrave has clearly decided not to play the game, archly batting back Radcliffe’s perfectly reasonable queries, and that’s after she’s kicked off the session asking for the seating to be rearranged. If only the film itself had been so entertaining.
To be fair, Mrs Lowry & Son isn’t a flat-out dud. The dialogue and the performances have too much going for them for that to be the case. It’s just a shame that as a whole it’s so frustratingly flat and unimaginative in execution, never more than the sum of its parts and falling way short as a tribute to a fascinating artist.
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
The Gala Premiere of Mrs Lowry & Son was held at The Lowry in Salford on August 27, 2019. The film is now on general release.