Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs
Good folk of a certain age, or current Celtic supporters will be aware of a one-hit wonder (it got to No1 in the UK charts in 1978) track of the above title by a musical duo called Brian and Michael. The subject of the gentle song was a painter by the name of Laurence Stephen Lowry (L.S. Lowry) who hailed from mainly Pendlebury, Lancashire, who had passed away a couple of years prior and was know for a stylised approach to some of works.
He lived in the somewhat bleak industrial North West of England during the early 20th Century, and despite the grey manufactured world that lived outside his windows, he was able to reinterpret these influences into wonderful observations about the humanity he saw on his daily work meanderings. He viewed the world like no other, he saw people like no other, and his creations, were like no other. Like a reporter he saw magic and majesty in the frozen moments, the radiance in the individual, the rainbow spectrums in the smoke, the dreams and aspirations in the red brickwork, the hopes in the slog.
Despite vacuous biased criticisms about his approach towards painting being ‘naive’, they showed a profound observation and honesty of the world around him (completely devoid of pomp and circumstance), beyond the urban greys there bloomed all the colours of lives, stories and human perseverance. He also painted because he had to paint, citing ‘I am not an artist. I am a man who paints.’
The celebration of Lowry’s works came late in his life, and the extremely beautiful new movie ‘Mrs Lowry & Son’ (2019) directed by Adrian Noble brings a bit of backdrop to why this was so, and also takes us by the hand as we stroll through this rather intense cobblestoned world, and wonder at the fact that he created such pieces despite everything around him, particularly his completely overbearing mum.
With a beautiful touching and colloquial screenplay by Salford born Martyn Hesford, there runs the intimate and the universal experiences of humanity as the bachelor L.S. (Timothy Spall on his usual phenomenal form) lives with and under the hyper critical stare of his bedridden widowed mum (Vanessa Redgrave on equal sterling performance).
Beautifully directed by Adrian Noble (predominately a theatre director), the film sits like a gorgeous tiny play on screen (it had previously existed as a radio play, then theatre), with a highly restrained use of sets and locations, which wonderfully only intensifies the focus on the mostly damaged, yet somehow functioning relationship, with L.S. enduring the maternal constant, subtle, barbed, brutal, verbal stabbings, whilst containing all of life within a small frame, as Lowry did with his paintings.
The film lives mainly in 1943, Lowry spending all his life effectively as a carer to his mum, who in her own eyes has fallen from social grace due to the inability of her deceased husband to keep her in the lifestyle, postcode, cakes and splendour she once reigned.
Every day she sees her husband in her son (who has also taken up the mantle of rent collector just like his dad), and sees the horror of the world she now inhabits in the paintings that her son produces in any spare moment, while he makes the paintings to find her love, for himself, and hopefully for her to see the actual beauty (of a type) of the world around her, the glow of life rich faces where expensive flowers once bloomed.
This rather cruel and intense relationship is the heart and bruised soul of the movie, where the mum is the inspiration for the work, and the very one who restricts and actively punishes their very existence, effectively as she treats her son.
From the perspective of present-day where his paintings regularly sell for millions and rightly have a permanent exhibition in Salford, Manchester, it is truly a miracle that his work exists at all, as despite the vindictiveness presented as though love, he endured such criticism, that there’s a palpable resilience that actually mimics the working-class capacity to endure and press on regardless of whatever is thrown at you. That working-class element being seen as reprehensible to his mum, who believed she was deserving of a much higher accord. But the relationship, despite his undying love for his mum, is one of the harshest, cruelest I’ve seen on screen, thankfully it’s a very funny movie too.
All is focused on this interplay, with ever more emotional chess moves being played to try and win his mums affections. In lesser hands this would be an impossible goal, but absolutely everyone and everything about this film is pure joy, craftsmanship, and art, with all participants at the top of their game. Every moment between Spall and Redgrave is masters at work, where a frown, or clipped phrase packs the punch of Tyson on cocaine. The nuances are terminal in their purity, this is total annihilation because of some warped sense of love. But it’s also, more importantly about surviving, and being true to oneself regardless of the speed mountains that his verbal demolitions expert mum repeatedly throws in his path. In fact, if she had learned to harness that creativity towards something good, but in a cruelly bizarre way, we wouldn’t have the Lowry we have now if she did. Out of hell was born beauty, out of falseness, a profound truth.
The production design (Catrin Meredydd), costumes (Jenny Beavan), cinematography (Josep M. Civit) and score (Craig Armstrong,) are a time travelling dream, transporting us back to an era that isn’t so long ago (I saw my grandparents home/life in so many moments), yet feels like another world. But it’s no nostalgia trip, but a wonderful analysis of human relationships, both with each other and creativity itself.
Ultimately Lowry got the recognition he craved (to appease his mum by validation of those she would approve of), but after she had passed. He also extremely admirably refused multiple ‘award’ & ‘honours’ from the monarchy, which only made me love his work and integrity all the more. And this movie only lovingly adds to the recognition he richly deserves.
‘Mrs Lowry & Son’ is out now.