Noble, after a distinguished career at the Royal Shakespeare Company, focuses instead on Lowry’s co-dependent relationship with his mother Elizabeth, played by Vanessa Redgrave. The casting is itself an event, so the performances have actory weight.
Vanessa lies abed, berating and belittling this grown man who does nothing but try to please her. She didn’t want him; your father left them penniless; you’re a terrible painter, wasting your time. He trudges up the stairs of their modest home, bringing her meals each night, suffering her abuse until she sleeps. Then he goes into the attic and paints, but the camera rarely follows.
It seems perverse to make a film about a painter and not show either his process or even much of his work, but the clue is in the title. When you’ve got Redgrave, you’re not going to make a film about watching paint dry. You’re going to make a film about the weird, spiteful mother and the timid, loving, self-subjugating son. And, of course, as in all English films, there is class. Mother has never forgiven her late husband for the financial failure that caused them to move from a genteel Manchester neighbourhood to this modest cottage in a grimy northern backwater.
Both actors give this bed-bound script their all and their jousting is enjoyable if you like other people’s pain. It may help to explain Lowry’s work, but it’s hard to judge that when we don’t get to see much of it. She belittles his power of seeing, but it’s not clear that her attacks make his work better or more concentrated.
He wants to please a woman who can’t be pleased. I kept wondering if his art would have been different if he had not had to look after this manipulative old biddy for the last 10 years of her life?
The movie’s origins in a play are fairly clear. As ever in films about great painters, the work takes second place to the details of his daily life. There’s more soup than paint here.