Mrs Lowry & Son (2019)
After the phenomenal success of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014), bringing on the inestimable Timothy Spall — character actor extraordinaire — as another artist bound inextricably with the psychic consciousness of the British people, should have been a sure bet. Instead, we have an unsteady misfire that wastes — not only a fascinating story but also, when one adds Vanessa Redgrave, Foxcatcher (2014), as the titular Mrs. Lowry — two of the best actors England has produced.
Laurence Stephen (Laurie) Lowry was a painter who famously created some of the first art to explore the beauty of the post-industrial revolution landscape. He worked particularly in Lancashire and is absolutely revered in Manchester with a massive arts complex devoted to his work as well as contemporary design, art and education in Salford. Although long neglected in many ways by the arts establishment in the U.K. because of his working-class lifestyle, his art is uniquely resonant for anyone who has witnessed drudgery and alienation because of their clockwork and whistle-timed lives. Perpetually grumpy Mancunian Noel Gallagher (Oasis) and Sir Ian McKellen are both famous admirers of his work, which now fetches millions of pounds at auction and has become the kind of status symbol Sir Jeffrey Archer brags about owning.
The basic problem with the film is that it’s so clearly an adapted stage play. It begins with an oft-spoken mantra read aloud by Spall over images and actions that directly correlated to Lowry’s visual realm. ‘I’m a simple man. I paint what I see.’ What muddies up this direct narration is that the film attempts to communicate that Lowry was not simple at all, but actually a bundle of neuroses, in part manufactured through the abusive and toxic relationship he had with his invalid mother Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave).
In the 1930s, Laurie Lowry lives in a ‘two up, two down’ with his class-obsessed and overbearing mother. Long ago, through failed fortunes, Elizabeth and Laurie had to leave their relatively comfortable upper-middle-class home in a prismatically lit suburb only about three miles from the dull cottage they currently inhabit. Laurie spends his days working tirelessly as a rent collector trying to pay off the debts his father incurred due to profligate spending to keep his listless wife in the style she felt entitled to.
Like clockwork, Laurie lives a rinse and repeat lifestyle that he tries to enliven by observing all that goes on around him. He’s lonely, isolated, and sometimes detached to a frightening degree. He seeks comfort by playing games of ‘What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?’ with local street kids and is shown to be the quiet observer of human foibles that should make him instantly relatable. He collects the community rent, he cajoles and calms his dear old womb/ tomb apron-strings, Mam. Whilst being constantly emasculated by Elizabeth, he stoically takes on the woman’s work of the house. He cooks, he cleans, he bristles and grooms and is very clearly suffering some terrible extended psycho-sexual thing that could be, quite literally, any kind of mental condition considering the extreme level of humiliation he routinely is served. After a day of hard work on the streets of Manchester, and then a night of hard work dealing with Elizabeth, Laurie escapes to his studio to paint.
Elizabeth, for her part, is so overbearing and petty-minded that the extremity of the abuse she meters out to Laurie elicits laughter from the audience. She’s a vessel for received wisdom; an unbearable snob who spends as much time as she can faking illness, panic, and helplessness to wring every morsel of energy and sympathy from her son that she can. Switching from needling and cruel to coquettish and flirtatious, Redgrave makes the audience profoundly uncomfortable — and laughing at her is cathartic.
Sandwiched between solitary, or near solitary outside scenes, where Lowry employs the technique of the observer to ‘paint what he sees, paint what he feels’ in a stock standard recitation of hues that are replicated on the screen. Spall is put in stage pieces that are taken directly from Lowry paintings. Perhaps that’s apropos for the constant outsider Lowry, but it becomes trite and stagey with repetition.
Because the film is focused almost myopically on the mother/ son dynamic of the Lowrys, the two characters who could have opened up the movie to a wider critique of class inequality and struggle are never fleshed out — Elizabeth fawns over a new neighbor Mrs. Doreen Stanhope (Wendy Morgan) who she recognizes herself in. Doreen also feels that she’s married beneath her by attaching herself to her unionist husband. At first, we are led to wonder if she’s the victim of some terrible domestic violence, but as the plot unfolds, we see that she’s, in fact, the domestic abuser. Her entitlement and laziness are vicious indictments of the aspirational classes, yet it’s just too ephemeral to be as effective as it should be in echoing Elizabeth’s central quandary.
Almost completely absent from the film is the darkness and weirdness of some of Lowry’s imaginary world. As his work was being uncovered, a series of somewhat disturbing erotica known as his marionettes emerged. Tightly corseted young women are sketched like bizarre ballet fetishes. Also lacking is any foreshadowing of his most certainly offbeat relationship with the very young Carol Lowry (no relation). In a film that is an extended piece of psychoanalysis parading as biography, such absences only serve to undermine the narrative.
In Mr. Turner, Spall was allowed to fully embody J.M.W. Turner with all his haptic and libidinal appetite. Spall snorted, spat, rutted and bodily threw himself into the work of Turner. Because of the training he did learning Turner’s style in the film, he is now considered an emerging painter in his own right. He clearly also studied Lowry’s style with great alacrity, but as with so many predictable films, the audience isn’t really given the opportunity to see an artist truly at work until the very end of the film. Instead, Spall acts Lowry as art instead of physically embodying him as a painter. And when it comes to pictures that are the visual equivalent to Vasari’s Lives of Artists, the audience craves not only the why but the how of an artist’s process.
Mrs Lowry & Son is helmed by famed stage theatre director Adrian Noble and is based on the stage play by Martyn Hesford, who is also noted for writing a series of BBC telemovies including the Kenneth Williams 2006 biopic Fantabulosa! starring Michael Sheen. Perhaps the reason the film fails as a large screen excursion is that neither of the major talents involved have worked extensively enough in cinema, instead, their careers have been stage and small screen.
In short, Spall and Redgrave have both explored class, melancholy, and memory better so many times that it’s sad that this film is such a misfire. I wanted to love it as much as I love both of them, but I just couldn’t. I suggest tuning in to Spall in a Poliakoff drama instead, and Redgrave in almost anything else she’s done.
1.5 / 5 – Poor
Reviewed by Nadine Hasselt Whitney