Adrian Noble’s Mrs Lowry And Son, his first foray into the world of directing feature films, closed this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. It comes with weighty credentials. Aside from Noble’s own name and reputation – a leading light at the Royal Shakespeare Company for a number of years – the mere mention of its two lead players, Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave, spells acting of the highest order and demands you take the film seriously. So does its subject matter, L S Lowry.
Laurence Stephen Lowry was born in 1887 but his work, like many artists, was only truly appreciated after his death. His paintings, in the main, depicted the working life of the people of Pendlebury, where he lived and worked for more than 40 years. And it’s there the film finds him, working as a lowly clerk and rent collector, painting by gaslight in the attic and looking after his near bed-ridden mother, Elizabeth. It’s the relationship between the quiet, submissive and caring Lowry (Spall) and his bitter, dominant, self-absorbed mother (Redgrave) that occupies the bulk of the film. He’s been painting for years and, at last, there’s a small glimmer of hope that he might gain some recognition – a letter from London holds the promise of an exhibition, a new neighbour shows some interest in his paintings yet his mother sees little point in him pursuing what she regards as just a hobby, actively discouraging him at one moment, suggesting he use another style – “a nice bowl of fruit” – at another.
The majority of the film is set inside the mother’s bedroom, only occasionally venturing into the rest of the house or further afield, but never too far. This confinement and the fact that the film is close to being a two hander between Spall and Redgrave, immediately gives it a claustrophobic feel and the distinct feeling that it should be a stage play. Martyn Hesford’s screenplay was, however, written for the big screen but could easily transfer to the stage with minimal adaptation for maximum effect. Yet it stands or falls on the quality of the performances from its two main actors and Noble has struck gold with Redgrave and Spall.
This is an acting masterclass so that, even though the script feels pedestrian at times, they transcend any obstacles placed in their way with performances of pure class. Redgrave in particular delivers an extraordinarily truthful piece of acting in a part that would have been all too easy to dumb down. True, Elizabeth is selfish, snobbish, cruel and unfeeling yet she invests her with so much humanity that, although some of the things she says are appalling, you can never just write her off as a monster, even if she has monstrous moments. Playing an artist again, but a very different one from Mr Turner, Spall demonstrates equal subtlety as the son who loves his mother dearly – Lowry turned down a knighthood because there was no point accepting it “now mother’s gone” – but full of pent-up hurt which eventually bursts out in the film’s heartbreaking, distressing climax.
It’s a slow-burner and, by the end, you will probably feel as grey as some of the landscapes you’ve been watching in the film. But there’s no doubting the quality of the acting that Noble has drawn out from Redgrave and Spall. They linger in your mind for hours afterwards, as do your own reactions to what you’ve seen. It’s not a perfect film but one where the two central performances are unforgettable perfection.
Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2
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Biography, Drama, History | Cert:PG| UK, 30 August (2019) | Vertigo | Dir. Adrian Noble | Vanessa Redgrave, Timothy Spall, Stephen Lord, Wendy Morgan, Michael Keogh.