Seldom seen out of a bonnet these days, Vanessa Redgrave is on fine waspish form as a frill-decked matriarch in ‘Mrs Lowry & Son’. It’s a film that zeroes in obsessively on the relationship between this bedridden mother and her son, the Salford painter LS Lowry, played by a hangdog Timothy Spall.
Where Lowry’s paintings were crowded with figures all vigorously going somewhere, this film depicts his life as small and cramped. A few predictably monochrome traipses through Manchester’s streets aside, Lowry spends most of the film sitting at the foot of his mother’s bed, pouring out tea while she pours scorn on his artistic dreams.
Better known for his theatre work, director Adrian Noble coaxes intense performances from the pair, making their stifling closeness spill out in lapping waves of raised hopes and disappointments. Redgrave is wry and fascinatingly changeable as Mrs Lowry; berating her son for the vulgarity of his paintings one minute, and delighting in prunes, custard and decades-old snobberies the next. But she’s not fascinating enough to stop all this from feeling like an uneventful, overly stuffy approach to a painter who, as this mother continually tells us, was considered outlandishly strange.
The odd Lowry-inspired surreal flourish signals another direction it all could have gone in: he daydreams of a bearded lady, of factory chimneys that are taller than mountains. A letter from London arrives, promising Lowry the exhibition he longs for – its words vibrate with the hope he invests in them. But Lowry’s eventual success, like his artistry, falls outside this film’s muted palette.