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Mrs Lowry & Son is like watching paint dry


directed by Adrian Noble

Even Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave can’t brighten this drab canvas about a British painter.

Five years ago, Timothy Spall put in a wonderful titular performance in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. His rendition of the British painter famous for his facility with light lifted a film about art to a work of art itself.

Sadly, in Adrian Noble’s uninspiring Mrs Lowry & Son, even Spall’s sympathetic and nuanced acting can’t save a film about painting from the inevitable comparison.

LS “Laurie” Lowry is famous for his “matchstick figure” paintings depicting working-class Lancashire in the mid-20th century. They are the antithesis of Turner’s dreamy, luminous landscapes, but nonetheless charming for their keen-eyed affection for the artist’s fellow Northerners.

This biopic focuses on the grim 1930s when much of Britain was struggling – almost as much as Mrs Lowry struggles to accept the death of her middle-class existence. Constantly complaining about the husband who ruined her life, mother Lowry spends her days nagging her only son and despairing that he paints scenes of local life that nobody wants to look at. “I paint what I see,” he protests, more than once in the on-the-nose script. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

It is possible to make a film about painters exciting – just watch Pollock, Frida or last year’s magnificent Loving Vincent. We have also seen the bleak north of England rendered much more poignantly by Alan Bennett and Terence Davies. By comparison, Mrs Lowry & Son is simply a relationship movie between the overbearing mother and emasculated son.

Most of the action (a misnomer) takes place in Mrs Lowry’s floral bedroom, as their interminable conversation reiterates her disdain and embarrassment for her only child’s “hobby”. Worst of all, the inert script completely squanders the potential of its star players. Spall does a valiant job, despite the drabness, and a vibrant Vanessa Redgrave manages to out-nasty even Downton’s Dowager Countess. But although Noble brings his extensive theatre background to bear with his cast, his camerawork lacks purpose, and he allows Craig Armstrong’s soundtrack to become a third character in every scene.

The repetitive tête-à-têtes get so draining that you start to wish Lowry would plump up a pillow and do the unspeakable to silence his harshest critic – only, it’s not that kind of film. Instead, we get scene after scene of soup being slurped, secrets being kept and a man being humiliated by someone who tells him she wishes he’d never been born, then wants a cuddle. It’s exhausting and unkind, and you start to long for more scenes of Lowry just picking up a brush and watching his paint dry.



Video: Vertigo Releasing

This article was first published in the December 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.