Cinematic Releases: Mrs. Lowry & Son (2019) - Reviewed

The cinematic biographical portrait of an artist can go many ways depending on the painter or sculptor’s life.  Typically they highlight the struggles of the artist and how said struggles can shape their creative expression, unearthing their personal demons influencing their works as well as their own inescapable self-fulfilling prophecies preventing them from leading ordinary happy lives.  The latest endeavor to shed light on the gulf between artistic triumph borne out of personal disappointment is Mrs. Lowry & Son, a British production chronicling the dismal coexistence of painter L.S. Lowry (Timothy Spall) and his cantankerous, suffocating bedridden mother Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). 

Presenting the cinematic directorial debut of theater director Adrian Noble, this low-budgeted stage-play as chamber-piece widescreen feature film is exactly as the title describes in that it primarily boils down to the two central cast members.  While the film occasionally leaves the impoverished apartment shared by Mr. Lowry and his mother, most of it takes place in the old curmudgeon’s barricaded bedroom with the ever-nasty Redgrave hurling an endless torrent of insults at Spall whose constant turning of the other cheek at her attacks become increasingly painful to witness.  Visually and sonically it’s a handsomely rendered piece with Far from the Madding Crowd composer Craig Armstrong’s score sounding very like Downton Abbey at times.  Still, it is primarily the two leads who are steering this ship.

Spall, having won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his 2014 portrayal of J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner, is no stranger to dramatizing the personal struggles of a renowned artist.  Redgrave is no doubt an industry veteran always at the top of her game and there were times her ferocious bursts of anger reminded me of her psychotic nun in Ken Russell’s The Devils.  At times the film touches on his insular past of being shielded from the outside world from his mother as well as trying to layer in an underdeveloped thread involving a next-door neighbor.  Mostly however, this film consists of Timothy Spall with his head hung low while enduring the verbal abuses of his mother ala Bette Davis in Now, Voyager. 

Yet for all of its honesty and nobility in efforts, something about Mrs. Lowry & Son feels undercooked and the painful episodes at home throw such a dark shadow over Mr. Lowry’s artistic successes that it begs the question whether or not it was worth all the trouble.  That it was fashioned by a theater director doesn’t hide its stage-setting limitations and only occasionally are we allowed glimpses into the heart of Mr. Lowry’s creative process.  Performances are good and somewhere in here is a story worthy of the talent involved and the pedigree of the subject in question.  It’s a well-done film but most leaving the theater will unfortunately only come away knowing the sting of Mrs. Lowry’s acidic venom rather than the beauty of her son’s painterly brilliance.

--Andrew Kotwicki