Directed by Adrian Noble
29th August – 12th September 2019
Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
Whistler’s mother or Lowry’s mam? For art lovers now have the privilege of choosing which of these ornery old women is the more difficult. We know that Anna McNeill Whistler, she of the long black gown and haggard profile, was a stern but charitable woman, and when she came to visit her bohemian son in London in the 1860s made every effort to befriend his circle.
The same can’t be said for the bedridden Mrs Lowry, played here by the brilliant Vanessa Redgrave. She’s a persistently cruel adversary to her timid, caring son, taking every chance to demean both of his jobs: as painter and dutiful rent collector. Redgrave plays Elizabeth Lowry as the cranky professional snob. Apparently a promising concert pianist in her youth and homeowner, in her younger years, of a charming house in Manchester’s Victoria Park, she’s now the widow of a profligate husband. Thanks to piling debts and a habitual Northern miserablism, she and Laurie have to live out their days in a two-up two-down terrace in Pendlebury; he does all the cooking and housework, while she takes care of disparaging the locals.
On the whole, Laurie is far more cheery. And Timothy Spall’s face is the biggest wonder of the movie: moving from patient smiles and twinkly sighs to lonely silence. He doesn’t share his mother’s strong dislike of the working classes around them, in fact he likes how his rent-collecting rounds serve his artistry – he can watch his subjects up close and then retreat into the attic later to paint their stoic drudgeries under gaslight.
Mrs Lowry & Son is highly repetitive. Adapted from a radio play, the same conversations and arguments recur to the point where you wish Laurie would slip his painter’s turps in the old crone’s bovril and live in peace. After half an hour or so of droll domestic naturalism, the movie opens up to it’s set pieces of mother-son arguments. They go like this: she hates his childish pictures, mainly because the MEN’s art critic says so, while he struggles to articulate why he’s elected to paint the Satanic mills of Manchester.
Sadly, the film plays unhesitatingly into the label that the taste-making classes forged especially for the lifestyle and painterly habits of artists like Lowry, namely that of the ‘Sunday painter’. Spall splutters about his feelings a lot, but absolutely nothing of his dedication comes across in this film; the camera pays more attention to how he clears away prune stones from his mother’s dessert bowl that it does on his careful art.
It’s rescued by two intense performances and bleak Northern wit. As the controlling mother, Elizabeth Lowry gets the best and bitterest lines, while Spall’s contrastingly affable humour is a delight. The end credits remind us that Lowry, throughout his later life, refused every offer of public honours, from OBE through to knighthood. I presumed that as a rent collector he wanted nothing to do with a load of permanent debtors. However, we’re told it’s because his mother wouldn’t have been there to see his recognition.