“I am a man who paints, nothing more, nothing less,” says the British artist L.S. Lowry, as glumly played by Timothy Spall, early on in Adrian Noble’s miniature portrait “Mrs. Lowry & Son.” He says it again later on, and again still, and at least a couple more times for good measure before the credits roll. It’s a line, in fact, repeated so often as to become an incantation: a sort of self-validating mantra for Lowry himself, whose early career was blighted by critical dismissals of his then-unfashionable naïve style, as well as a consistent, chiding reminder on the film’s part, nagging us as to both the humility and the biographical value of its subject. Lowry’s work and legacy, now rightly installed in the English cultural pantheon, need no such insistent justification; sadly, this airless, one-note biopic makes a less clear case for itself.
On paper — or on canvas, perhaps — “Mrs. Lowry & Son” seems like it can’t miss. With his Cannes-awarded turn as another lauded British painter, J.M.W. Turner, still fresh in our minds, Spall makes a tidy casting pick as Lowry: a very different figure from Turner, though also a working-class introvert who mostly existed outside the elitist English art fraternity in his lifetime. Martyn Hesford’s screenplay doesn’t bite off more than it can chew with a cradle-to-grave narrative, instead zeroing in on the middle-aged Lowry’s embittered relationship with his widowed, bedridden mother Elizabeth, and her own sneering, demoralizing attitude toward her son’s paintings.
Casting Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth, her most substantial leading role in several years, feels like another coup; whatever its cinematic limitations as a chamber piece, the film promises a feisty thespian head-to-head. In the U.K., older audiences have been duly enticed, despite middling reviews and low-key publicity: since opening in late summer, shortly after its premiere as this year’s Edinburgh closer, the film has been a steady arthouse sleeper, slowly racking up over $1.5 million at the box office, well ahead of buzzier British indies like “Diego Maradona” and “The Souvenir.”
Yet the disappointment of “Mrs. Lowry & Son” is that it finds neither of its star attractions at the peak of their powers: Both Spall and Redgrave feel stifled and stiff-jointed, hemmed in by a thin, shallow-focus script that betrays its origins as a radio play all too easily. Every facet of this toxic mother-son relationship is spoken, repetitiously so, with nary a detail left to visual or sensory interpretation. Only fleetingly do Noble (a veteran Royal Shakespeare Company director with two direct stage-to-film transfers to his name) and his capable crew attempt any on-screen evocation of Lowry’s art, rather a waste considering how cinematically it engaged with urban landscapes and populations. Anthony Ward’s production design is mostly preoccupied with the claustrophobic pileup of Elizabeth’s doilies and gewgaws in the poky suburban Manchester rowhouse she shared with her son until her death in 1939.
If the aspirational but fusty aesthetic of Mrs. Lowry is what rules the film over that of her son, that’s somewhat apt: Frail, creaky-voiced and near-permanently horizontal, she domineers him throughout, whether passive-aggressively assessing his cooking or more bluntly ranting over the worthlessness of his unprofitable paintings. The deadening routine of Lowry’s everyday life, from his day job as a rent collector to evenings as his loveless mother’s carer, is swiftly established and made grindingly cyclical on screen; his career as a professional artist only took off after her death, and the film is at pains to couch this fact in a grimly immediate cause-and-effect terms.
It’s plausible enough, and potentially moving, but for the fact that neither the writing nor Spall’s ashen, clammed-up turn offer much sense of Lowry’s anxiously protected inner life. The artist may have been famously detached and allegedly celibate his entire life, but his inspirations, processes and desires largely remain as unknown to us as they were to his cruelly obtuse mother: a man who paints, nothing more, nothing less. “You find things beautiful that no one else does,” she says, with disdain rather than affection: true enough, though to watch the film, you’d think Lowry’s mournfully eccentric, humane depictions of industrial Britain came out of thin, smoggy air. Redgrave has the slightly easier, saltier assignment, playing Elizabeth as a broadly cantankerous snob nursing her own thwarted artistry — dreamed of being a concert pianist dashed by domestic drudgery — and duly lands the odd dry laugh, whether puckering her entire face at the sight of one of her son’s supposedly wretched canvases, or crooning her rare approval over a dish of prunes and custard.
More often, however, this stiff-lipped, low-volume battle of wills and tastes makes for drab, spiritless drama, beigely shot and unequal to the witty, bustling life, sociological curiosity and against-odds beauty of the paintings it champions but doesn’t really see. It culminates in the artist’s present-day, out-of-time amble through the dedicated Lowry gallery in his hometown of Salford, the clean modern lines and bright, airy spaces of which are light years removed from the dusty matchbox of resentment and repression in which we’ve spent the preceding 90 minutes. That Lowry’s work eventually left those joyless confines is what this ending invites us to celebrate, though we’re just as grateful for own escape.