Biopics are always a tricky balance. Sometimes a film can be incredibly respectful to the character and be a bit flat, or the director’s vision can overwhelm the subject. The best biopics (The Elephant Man, 24 Hour Party People) are a delicate balance of the two – staying true to the subject whilst remaining a compelling film in it’s own right.
Mrs Lowry & Son is an instance of the former. A masterful depiction of one of Britain’s best loved artists (from one of Britain’s best loved actors) can’t save a film that is by turns dreary and overwrought. The choice to focus on Lowry and his mother is interesting, especially given their strained relationship, but there isn’t enough substance to the film beyond that.
Timothy Spall is incredible as Lowry, even as he continues his mission to portray every single British artist. The scenes where he paints are sensitive and beautifully judged, you can see the delicacy of Lowry’s technique – something that is often missed. As a painter he is most famous for his seemingly basic style, but that belies a talent for realism that he was capable of, but chose not to pursue. This is touched upon briefly here, and Spall is great at capturing Lowry’s frustration when people dismiss his paintings as “childlike”.
Vanessa Redgrave is also great as Lowry’s mother, a profoundly negative influence on her son, who pours scorn on every little thing he does. The problem with a character like this though, is that it can drain the energy out of the film, and that tends to happen here. The scenes between Lowry and his mother are affecting in places but feel too much. Once the relationship is established, it gets very repetitive, and when a film is essentially a two hander like this there needs to be a bit more substance. It’s touching when she asks about “her” painting, but it doesn’t balance out how miserable the character is for the rest of the film, or reconcile her to the audience as a sympathetic character in any way.
The film looks beautiful, and director Adrian Noble has done an exceptional job translating Lowry’s paintings onto the screen. He uses the same muted colour palette that Lowry used in his paintings, and the result is some wonderful landscape shots, some of which look almost unreal. An early game of grandmother’s footsteps emulates the figures that he is famous for, and a later scene shows factory workers frozen in place as they leave for the day, with Lowry taking in the scene for inspiration.
However for every nicely judged moment or inspired shot there’s a misfire, including the strange choice to mimic Doctor Who and show Lowry wandering around a gallery of his work in the present day. It’s an awkward way to close a story that doesn’t really have a satisfying ending and if it succeeds at all, it’s down to Spall’s performance.
As part of the films release, we were invited to a painting masterclass from Frank Gray, the artist who taught Spall how to recreate Lowry’s distinctive painting style. It was an eye-opening and invaluable experience, really highlighting the difficulty of emulating Lowry’s techniques. We were given a wide variety of his paintings to copy, and while I picked one of the simpler ones, unsurprisingly it’s not as easy as it looks! Gray is an unassuming but incredibly knowledgeable teacher, and as we each picked the paintings we would try and recreate, he talked to us about Lowry’s technique and influences, and provided a great deal of insight into his life and the way his style evolved over time. With this, the film became a much more interesting experience.
Unfortunately, the film itself isn’t as enlightening as it would like to be. Every line is too on the nose and it feels overwrought, stagey and repetitive. The two central performances are really well observed (especially Spall) but they can’t prevent the film being a bit of a slog. Visually, it’s a touching tribute to Lowry’s style but it never hits the emotional high points it aims for.