Mrs Lowry & Son Cert: PG, 1hr 31mins
The Lancashire artist L S Lowry never married, lived with his mother until her death and, at least according to this new film, regularly played ‘Grandma’s Footsteps’ with local children. Goodness knows what folk would make of him if he were alive today.
But it is his troubled, psychologically abusive relationship with his invalid mother, Elizabeth, that takes centre-stage here. Bedridden when it suited her, curtain-twitching when it didn’t, this woman seems to have dedicated her life to making her son’s life – and particularly his artistic life – a misery.
‘Have you ever liked one of my paintings, mother?’ the already middle-aged painter asks her pitifully more than once. She barely gives it a moment’s thought and certainly none to spare his feelings: ‘No… and I’m not the only one, am I?’
The Lancashire artist L S Lowry (Timothy Spall, above) never married, lived with his mother until her death and regularly played ‘Grandma’s Footsteps’ with local children
Crestfallen (again), he returns to the daily grind of making her tea, filling her hot-water bottle, emptying her chamber pot… his only solace knowing that, once she is asleep, he can go up to his attic studio and paint.
‘I paint what I see,’ he tells us in a rather startling scene to camera at the opening. ‘I paint what I feel.’ And there was I thinking he only painted ‘matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs’.
Now, as someone who didn’t know about Lowry’s difficult relationship with his controlling mother, I’m duly grateful to director Adrian Noble (taking time off from the theatre to make one of his very occasional films) and to screenplay writer Martyn Hesford.
In truth, Spall – who played the artist J M W Turner in Mr Turner, of course – is a touch too old at 62 to convincingly play Lowry, who would have been in his late 40s when most of the film is set
If you know about Lowry, it’s apparently not a new revelation but is depicted here in a populist, easily accessible way that comes complete with a gentle piano score, deliberate moments of Hyacinth Bucket comedy and an audience-grabbing cast led by Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave.
But my goodness, it’s a slight and selective piece of work. By focusing so very specifically on the mother-son relationship, and with 90 per cent of the film being claustrophobically set in her upstairs bedroom in Pendlebury, we come out knowing a bit more about Lowry and his painting (all of them began with a base layer of ‘flake white’, apparently) but not a lot.
Where did that idiosyncratic painting style come from? It’s disappointing after an hour-and-a-half’s watching to say I’m still not sure.
The presence of Vanessa Redgrave (above) and the period setting also provide comforting comparisons with TV’s Call The Midwife
With lines such as ‘They must have thought my Nottingham lace doilies ridiculous’ and ‘I haven’t been cheerful since 1868’, not to mention an awful lot of cups of tea, comparison with Alan Bennett is inevitable.
The presence of Redgrave and the period setting also provide comforting comparisons with TV’s Call The Midwife.
But so little happens – one scene about a picture of sailing boats seems to go on for ever – that the end result feels like little more than a minor theatrical conversation piece, albeit one played out by two of Britain’s finest actors.
IT’S A FACT
In 2015, a Midlands man was given a 20-week jail sentence for making his neighbours life a misery by singing Matchstalk Men… day and night.
In truth, Spall – who played the artist J M W Turner in Mr Turner, of course – is a touch too old at 62 to convincingly play Lowry, who would have been in his late 40s when most of the film is set.
At a still sometimes girlish-looking 82, Redgrave is a better fit. Maybe aware of that, Spall sets his famously hangdog expression to maximum and does an awful lot of baleful staring.
Mind you, with so little for Lowry to do but endure his mother’s tirades, it’s difficult to know what alternatives, if any, there might have been.
Mrs Lowry & Son ought to be one of those home-grown pictures we should be cheering to the rafters – a film about a great British artist, performed by two superb British actors, and directed by one the giants of British theatre.
Unfortunately, and rather like the critical reception that Lowry’s work received for much of his lifetime, it’s getting only a grudging cheer from me. Matchstalk men, indeed.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
The Souvenir (15)
Writer-director Joanna Hogg is the queen of upper-middle- class, art-house awkwardness, and she’s on top form here as she tells the reportedly very personal story of Julie, who as a young and distinctly well-to-do film student back in the Eighties fell in love with a controlling older man.
But Anthony (Tom Burke) is very obviously, to everyone except Julie, also nursing a dark and potentially damaging secret.
Playing out in Hogg’s trademark, understated style, and with key moments passing frustratingly unseen, it’s a nonetheless intriguing affair as we wait to discover the nature of the secret and what Julie’s response will be.
Tom Burke is fabulously discomfiting as Anthony, while Honor Swinton Byrne (above) making her adult debut, is note perfect as the sincere but naive Julie
Burke is fabulously discomfiting as Anthony, while Honor Swinton Byrne making her adult debut, is note perfect as the sincere but naive Julie. Honor’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, plays her mum here too.
The Informer (15)
Goodness knows what attracted Rosamund Pike and Clive Owen to this tediously over-macho, overlong New York thriller about drugs, police demarcations and endless double-crosses.
RoboCop star Joel Kinnaman plays a Polish drug trafficker who’s become a valuable informer for the FBI, only to end up in all sorts of trouble when a sale goes wrong and an undercover New York detective is killed.
Amid a riot of muscles and tattoos, we’re supposed to care whether it’s his violent drug-lord bosses or an avenging NYPD that catches up with him first. We don’t.
The Mustang (15)
French film-maker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre makes her feature debut here, directing this naturalistic, at times almost documentary-feeling drama about a violent prisoner (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) who takes part in a prisoner rehabilitation programme involving wild mustang horses.
With both man and horse suffering from anger-management problems, it’s a well acted if not always subtle affair. Bruce Dern, 83, leads the supporting cast.
A Million Little Pieces (15)
I’m not the greatest fan of films about drug rehab or the often over-the-top performances of Aaron Taylor-Johnson but they come together well in this adaptation of James Frey’s controversial memoir directed by the actor’s wife, Sam Taylor-Johnson.
It covers all the normal messy, shivery, violently angry ground but benefits from an unexpectedly warm heart, a decent central turn from Aaron Taylor-Johnson (above)
It covers all the normal messy, shivery, violently angry ground but benefits from an unexpectedly warm heart, a decent central turn from Taylor-Johnson and a touchingly funny performance from Billy Bob Thornton.
Oh, and a fantastic final scene.