Ah, it's probably one of my favourite films – the story of the insignificant clerk Lowry, perpetually hassled by his overbearing, critical mother, and only ever to find some respite through the sheer power and vibrancy of his imagination and his dream life. Unfortunately, that is not what we are here to talk about – well, not exactly. I'm talking about the premise of Terry Gilliam's magnificent Brazil, but the film on the docket is Adrian Noble's Mrs Lowry & Son, a film which appears vaguely similar on paper, but is entirely different once you actually film, edit and project it. (I feel slightly guilty for inflicting yet more woes on the Editor: #1 on the list of things he detests is films with ampersands in the title. Let's see if I can get through the rest of the column without mentioning the name of the film again.)
I think there's something more than a bit ironic when an artist in one medium owes most of their fame to a piece of work in another, especially one which they didn't actually make themselves. Yet here we are with the case of the painter L. S. Lowry, a prolific recorder of scenes of industrial Lancashire life in the early and middle 20th century. I think a lot of people in the UK are probably aware of Lowry and his work, but I also suspect that most of them would genuinely struggle to actually name a Lowry painting, far fewer than could sing the chorus to 'Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs', a rather sentimental novelty record about the artist which was a substantial hit a few years after his death. (Yes, I know – I could have sworn it was Matchstick Men, etc., too...)
The song does not appear in the movie. On the other hand, Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall do turn up, in the title roles (I will leave it to the on-the-ball reader to surmise who is playing Mrs Lowry and who isn't). It is 1934 and the duo are sharing a house in Greater Manchester; she is essentially bedridden and almost wholly dependent on her son, who has a small-potatoes job as a rent collector for the council. The late Mr Lowry was apparently a bit of a rascal and left significant debts behind upon his death, which is an issue, possibly for her more than him: Mrs Lowry is very aware of her own social status, still thinking of herself as middle-class and appalled to be living in such a proletarian neighbourhood, to say nothing of actually owing money to other people.
Lowry is famous as a painter, of course, something which the film naturally acknowledges from its opening moments, but we're a fair way into proceedings before the fact of his putting brush to canvas is acknowledged in the story. This is because Mrs Lowry is implacably disapproving of the fact he spends all his free time either sketching or sitting in the attic working on his canvases – she's never liked any of his paintings, feeling they are ugly, primitive daubs, and feels his time would be much better spent cultivating the right kind of social circle. Naturally, he disagrees with her – but will the possibility of public recognition of his art lead to some kind of reconciliation between them?
I suppose you could also say that this film also bears something of a resemblance to Mike Leigh's Mr Turner from a few years ago, in that it's the bio-pic of an artist starring Timothy Spall as the man with the magic touch. Well, again this is probably something of an optical illusion, as the new film is much more limited in its scope, less of a test of endurance, and – perhaps most importantly, for many people – does not feature Spall rumphing and gronking and making other strange noises all the way through. (Apologies to the Editor again: #2 on his diss list is when I start confusing the spellchecker by making up new words.)
This film started life as a stage play (the original playwright, Martyn Hesford, adapts), and really not much has been done to it in the process of bringing it to the screen: it mostly takes place in Lowry's terraced house – mostly in Mrs Lowry's bedroom, come to that – and Spall and Redgrave have the only significant roles. Nor is it the case that the two undergo a dramatic emotional transformation together. It's clear from the opening scenes that she is a clinging, self-pitying snob obsessed with petty issues of class and status, while he is a dutiful and caring son who is nevertheless conflicted because of his calling to be A Great Artist, and this is the dynamic which essentially plays out for the rest of the film.
Not exactly even-handed, then: Lowry is by far the more sympathetic of the two. And this does feel like a bit of a rigged game: we all know that Lowry is destined to go on to be A Great Artist whose paintings sell for huge sums and who will have maudlin pop-folk songs written about him, and so we are naturally sympathetic to his desire to sit in the attic and paint. Naturally, Mrs Lowry doesn't know this, and surely this mitigates somewhat in her favour. If the film was about some anonymous schmo living with his elderly mother who spends all his free time in seclusion painting rather odd pictures, who the audience doesn't know will end up with a major arts centre named after him, the tone of the film would surely be rather different: rather than being quite so sympathetic, one might be minded to call the social services.
Regardless of all of that, much of the film does have a rather uncomfortable and oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere to it: many scenes in the bedroom of Mrs Lowry bewailing her lost middle-class youth and putting down her son, and him quietly accepting all the abuse. It almost put me in mind of a strange variation on Steptoe and Son, only without the jokes. Naturally, there are two star actors here, and the performances are impeccable, but I did feel they were taking their characters on a journey from A almost to B. All the most interesting stuff seems to be going on around the fringes on the film – their neighbours seem to be having quite interesting rows, for instance, and the most interesting and uplifting (not to mention cinematic) part of the film comes when Lowry is out and about in a series of non-naturalistic scenes where he talks about his inspiration and art.
In the end there is a sort of emotional and dramatic climax, but it feels a little contrived, and by the end we are more or less back to the status quo from the start of the film. There's a weird coda where Lowry appears to travel through time to visit the present-day Lowry in Salford (shades of that thing Richard Curtis wrote about Van Gogh), but this really only adds to the impression that all the really interesting parts of Lowry's artistic career happened outside the time-frame of this movie. This is well-mounted and well-performed, but it does fall into the trap of suggesting that the most interesting thing about L. S. Lowry was his home life, and doesn't really engage enough with all the thing he is remembered for, and the reason why he is deemed movie-worthy in the first place.