LS Lowry, best known for his beautifully bleak paintings of industrial landscapes, was one of the late twentieth century’s most beloved artists. But it wasn’t always so. In the early 1930s he was struggling to gain wider critical acceptance and visibility. And his harshest critic, it seems, was his mother.
After the death of her husband, who left behind substantial debts, Elizabeth Lowry’s health declined and she took to her bed – permanently. Her only child, Laurence, working full time to pay back his father’s debts, became her carer. Painting late at night and into the small hours, in his own peculiar and deceptively simple style, Lowry sought approval from his mother for his work – and was repeatedly denied.
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After something of a fragmented and somewhat clumsy start, Mrs Lowry and Son settles down into a quiet and claustrophobic telling of this rather sad story – one that deals in both personal heartache and the potential destructiveness of class division.
Period dramas are often somewhat restrictive in their colour schemes, but the design here feels as though it reflects Lowry’s own palette, using a base of white, black, browns and faded pinks, with the occasional red or green standing out against a more muted background. The design crew have certainly done their research, recreating Mrs Lowry’s bedroom (with some filmic liberties taken) as pictured in Lowry’s 1940 painting, as well as incorporating images from some of his other well-known works.
The bedroom is where the majority of the action takes place, in what is essentially a two-hander between Timothy Spall as the mild and wide-minded Laurence Lowry and Vanessa Redgrave as his hurting and hurtful mother. Both are presented as complex characters, and although the dialogue between them is appropriately plain and ordinary it at times verges on dull, with writer Martyn Hesford not quite achieving the balance between realism and art that might be hoped for.
Mrs Lowry flits back and forth with her reactions, almost complimenting her son before retreating back into criticism and victimhood, whilst Lowry exhibits a weary wariness, constantly trying to pacify his ailing mother. Most of these interactions are understated and restrained, with a veneer of respectability about them. Spall and Redgrave both give the quality of performance that one would expect of such screen veterans, but Redgrave as Mrs Lowry is neither as sympathetic a character nor as barbed in her insults as we might imagine we’d get with someone like Maggie Smith in the role, and even at its most intense the film doesn’t quite build to the emotional pitch that one might expect. Whether this is down to the writing, acting choice or directorial style is impossible to say. And yet perhaps this is the point: that two people can wound one another without it seeming like a battle, much less a war, and weapons don’t have to be razor sharp in order to hurt.
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One cannot look at a Lowry painting without also contemplating the social situation that inspired it; the industrial landscapes, and the hardship and poverty of the working classes of the time period. Mrs Lowry rails against the working class scenes that Lowry paints, not just because she feels that they are inappropriate subjects for a painting but because she is afraid of being associated with them in any way, even through the medium of art. One could see her name-calling as merely the resentful spite of a woman who has lost the finer things in life. But this othering of the lower classes, this seemingly baseless terror of being seen as anything less than ‘respectable’, perhaps derives from a very real fear of falling on hard times and the consequences it could bring – the difficulty of staying warm, clean, fed, and the maladies that arrive on being too poor to maintain these basic needs.
DVD extras here are sparse: just one 30 minute feature, of Timothy Spall on a visit to the permanent exhibition at The Lowry, discussing works featured in and relevant to the film.
Mrs Lowry and Son is the somewhat upsetting story of a parent trapping a child in their own pain; of two people failing one another in their grief and love. There’s not much of a lighter side to it, and it manages, somehow, to be less than the sum of its parts. And yet it is still a highly enjoyable and worthwhile watch that has something to say about relationships and art and the world, as well as bringing Lowry and his works splendidly to life.