Adrian Noble has more Olivier award nominations to his name than there are scenes in his new film – Mrs Lowry & Son – set outside the former character’s bedroom. To wit, Noble is best known as being among the RSC’s longest-serving executives and for producing acclaimed hits right from The Winter’s Tale to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He is, in other words, a master of stagecraft.
So, one wonders, why did he not insist on taking Martin Hesford’s inherently theatrical script in that direction?
‘I was conscious of it,’ he ponders thoughtfully, when I broach the question. ‘But the reason I wanted to make this a picture was that it struck me that the matter of the material – what it’s about – was actually very filmic.
‘I knew that film would be able to take the audience right into the very heart of these characters, into the sometimes bleak side of their characters. I knew film could do that.’
Mrs Lowry & Son, released across the UK today, tells the complex, even troubling, story of the relationship between beloved British artist L.S. Lowry and his most ardent critic: his own mother. ‘She loathed his work,’ chuckles Noble.
Routed in 1930s Manchester, much of the film does indeed take place within the stage setting of Elizabeth Lowry’s own bedroom, with irregular stretches voyaging onto the city’s streets or above into the attic in which Lawrence Lowry forged a burgeoning career in industrial landscape art.
‘It’s an extraordinary story,’ says Noble, ‘and so unusual.
‘I knew it a bit about Lowry because his work has permeated across our culture. People write pop songs about it. But I didn’t know about him in depth and I certainly knew nothing about his relationship with his mum, nothing at all. I was rather ambushed by that.’
Bar his own calling to make the film – his first out and out feature, after two filmed theatrical productions – the one thing that was clear to Noble from the start was the need for impeccable casting.
‘I knew that if I didn’t get two absolutely brilliant actors I didn’t have a shout. Because eighty per cent of the picture takes place in duets, between Lowry and his mum, they not only had to be extraordinary actors, they’d also got to have chemistry. The screenplay demands that they be moving and funny. It demands that they both reveal quite raw sides of their characters. I wanted performances that were unsentimental because its a raw story.’
If a career in the West End offers nothing else, it lends connections. Such was the case here. Despite having worked with neither before, Noble knew both Timothy Spall – his Laurie – and Dame Vanessa Redgrave – his Elizabeth – long before embarking on Mrs Lowry & Son. Each heavily lauded in careers across stage and screen, Spall and Redgrave bring to the film gravitas and twinkling warmth. Though cantankerous by default of nature, Elizabeth has the sharpest lines.
Both too brought experience from prior work on critically hailed artist biopics. Whilst Redgrave played Lady Speranza Wilde – mother of Oscar – in 1997 film Wilde, it wasn’t so long ago that Spall walked away from Cannes with his first Best Actor gong for Mr. Turner. It’s safe to say that Noble was pleased with the result: ‘they delivered.’
The shoot itself was intimate; the crew restricted and vision uniform.
‘I gathered a key creative group around me who would share that view of the way to shoot it, which was very focused, very intense. I spent the whole shoot right next to the camera, very close to the actors. The one distressing day to me came because where we’d laid the dolly and the camera and the booms meant I had to be on the other side of the wall. I couldn’t see the actors working and I had to watch it through a monitor, which I hated.
‘We had to keep that intensity and very often we’d do it two or three takes, sometimes literally in one because it was pointless. As long as it was technically correct. Then we’d switch lenses and do it in a different way. That’s to do with Vanessa and Tim, not me. Their quality.’
Though little like Mike Leigh’s take on Turner, Mrs Lowry & Son does share a sense of hermetic sadness. Certainly, by the close, there is little to suggest Elizabeth Lowry would be satisfied to know of her connection to Laurie’s ongoing legacy. She was, Noble notes, horrified by reminders of her own working class background.
But what of the great man himself? Lowry once said that the modern world relegated the artist. What was, he questioned, the value of a painter in a world dominated by photography? For Noble, Lowry’s enduring success provides the answer.
‘Art enables us to the see the world differently. It enables us to inhabit other human conditions. If you look at a Lowry painting, any one that you like, you will see that there are usually dozens of people but there are no crowds at all. They’re all painted individually, they’re often separate and there’s always one person looking at the artist.
‘When you pull the camera back, if you will, and look at the whole canvas, you will see all sorts of different stories, all sorts of different colours. It makes up a symphony of working class life.’
Noble’s film, then, reverses that lens. Mrs Lowry & Son explores the Lowry condition and finds focus on a very particular canvas, in a very particular room. But that’s okay.
‘I think Laurie would be dead chuffed actually. It’s why, at the end of the picture, I have him going into the Lowry centre, sitting and looking at one of his pictures, with his flask and his sandwiches on the bench next to him, and then he turns to the camera and it’s a wry smile on his face. And I think he’s thinking yes, this is very nice. This’ll do nicely.’
Mrs Lowry & Son is in cinemas now.