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BRIAN VINER: Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave bring Matchstick Man L.S. Lowry and mother to life

Mrs Lowry & Son (PG)

Verdict: Ponderous yet moving

The Informer (15)

Verdict: Gritty crime thriller

Mrs Lowry & Son chronicles the relationship between the painter L.S. Lowry (Timothy Spall) and his domineering and snobbish invalid mother (Vanessa Redgrave), long before anyone, let alone the two of them, had an inkling that his sooty townscapes and ‘matchstick men’ might one day be worth millions.

It’s set in Pendlebury, Lancashire, in 1934 — in a world of fussy doilies, frilly lampshades and vanilla slices.

I loved Mike Leigh’s 2014 film Mr Turner, in which Spall played the great 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner. 

A scene in which ¿Larry¿ takes his mother a cup of tea is eked out for so long that other films would fit in a battle and a victory parade in the same time. Yet the pace also allows Redgrave to act her bed- socks off, and Spall to inhabit the character with his customary excellence

A scene in which ‘Larry’ takes his mother a cup of tea is eked out for so long that other films would fit in a battle and a victory parade in the same time. Yet the pace also allows Redgrave to act her bed- socks off, and Spall to inhabit the character with his customary excellence

As you might expect, he’s no less captivating as Lowry, a very different painter and a very different man, meek but kind-hearted, revelling in his games with the neighbourhood children, and entirely in thrall to his monstrous mother, Elizabeth.

The film, by illustrious theatre director Adrian Noble, making a rare foray into cinema, never really attempts to smudge its origins as a radio play. This somehow both enables and disables the narrative, making it at times almost laughably ponderous. 

A scene in which ‘Larry’ takes his mother a cup of tea is eked out for so long that other films would fit in a battle and a victory parade in the same time.

Yet the pace also allows Redgrave to act her bed- socks off, and Spall to inhabit the character with his customary excellence.

A few of Martyn Hesford’s lines serve a little too much as a nod and a wink to the audience – ‘You’re not an artist and you never will be,’ says Elizabeth, criticising Larry’s ‘squalid industrial scenes that nobody wants to buy’. But there are a few ripe chuckles, too.

‘What does he know about art?’ she sneers of the man next door. ‘He’s a socialist.’

It¿s set in Pendlebury, Lancashire, in 1934 ¿ in a world of fussy doilies, frilly lampshades and vanilla slices. I loved Mike Leigh¿s 2014 film Mr Turner, in which Spall played the great 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner

It’s set in Pendlebury, Lancashire, in 1934 — in a world of fussy doilies, frilly lampshades and vanilla slices. I loved Mike Leigh’s 2014 film Mr Turner, in which Spall played the great 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner

A friend asked me only last week why nobody seems to make really good crime thrillers any more.

The kind with a corrupt cop or two and maybe an undercover guy in fear of his life. The kind that might still be recalled fondly a generation or more later, such as Witness (1985) or LA Confidential (1997).

I couldn’t argue with his assertion that multiplex audiences don’t really want an overwhelming diet of superhero movies, crash-bang-wallop sequels and live-action remakes of Disney animations, with only the odd rom-com or biopic to leaven the mixture.

But wait. Here’s The Informer, also packed with British talent, to remind us that the corrupt-cop thriller genre isn’t face-up in the morgue just yet.

And while it might not be in the same league as LA Confidential or Witness, it’s a genuinely tense, gritty, New York City-set drama with a compelling leading man in Joel Kinnaman, and solid support from Rosamund Pike, whose fragrant English Rose period is now just a distant memory.

Once he has helped to nail the nasty Mr Big masterminding the operation, he will be absolved of his responsibilities to the Feds. But then a drug deal goes disastrously awry, ending in the death of a police officer

Once he has helped to nail the nasty Mr Big masterminding the operation, he will be absolved of his responsibilities to the Feds. But then a drug deal goes disastrously awry, ending in the death of a police officer

She plays FBI special agent Erica Wilcox, handler of an intrepid undercover man called Pete Koslow (Kinnaman). Incidentally, it’s odd how frightfully middle-class English actresses keep being cast as hard-as-nails U.S. Feds.

Emily Blunt filled a similar role a few years ago in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, which come to think of it was another exception to the rule that classy cinematic crime thrillers are a thing of the past.

I wonder what it is that makes casting directors looking for the kind of hard-boiled American women that used to be called broads, call on the likes of Pike and Blunt? 

Maybe they discern an inner steel beneath the prettiness, forged out of the capable stoicism of all those female English forebears making their own marmalade and sending their officer-class men off to war.

Whatever, Wilcox is another tough cookie, inflexible and even unscrupulous in the pursuit of bad guys. But Koslow is the one taking all the mortal risks.

He is a Gulf War hero, who returned to civilian life with post-traumatic stress disorder and ended up doing a jail term after killing a man in a bar fight for abusing his pretty wife.

Then he was sprung from the notorious Bale Hill prison by the FBI, on the understanding that he would use his skills to go undercover in the Polish mafia.

Koslow’s job for the mob is to shepherd drugs, smuggled into the U.S. in a diplomatic bag, through the Polish consulate in New York.

Once he has helped to nail the nasty Mr Big masterminding the operation, he will be absolved of his responsibilities to the Feds. But then a drug deal goes disastrously awry, ending in the death of a police officer. 

The crime boss blames Koslow, who, by way of penance, and with his beloved wife and daughter held as bargaining tools, must become an inmate again at Bale Hill in order to take control of drugs distribution there.

The Polish overlord will not only make vast sums of money from needy prisoners, but can also manipulate them when they come out.

So Koslow returns to the prison he worked so hard to leave, which is OK because he has the FBI to protect him, or thinks he does.

Wilcox’s boss is a treacherous cove played by British actor Clive Owen, although the sneaky Feds might just have met their match in a determined NYPD detective (played by the rapper Common), who is investigating the death of his colleague in the botched drug deal.

Originally, this film was titled Three Seconds, after the novel by the Swedish author Anders Roslund on which it is based.

The Italian director Andrea di Stefano has adapted it skilfully, with help from a British screenwriter, Rowan Joffe.

That’s an admirably multinational team behind a film that feels not just distinctly American but carries that particular whiff of New York City underbelly, of sweat and pretzels and acrid steam rising from subway gratings.

Tilda’s girl in a tale of secrets and lies

Also showing…

Joanna Hogg’s achingly middle-class films aren’t everybody’s cup of decaffeinated Earl Grey, indeed they aren’t really mine, but I can appreciate their quiet intensity. 

The Souvenir (15) is set in London in the early Eighties, when the city was squarely in the sights of IRA bombers. 

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is an aspiring filmmaker from a well-off family, who has chosen working-class Sunderland for her latest project, largely because she wants to break out of her privileged bubble.

She is a polite, considerate, sweet-natured young woman, sensitively played by Byrne in her debut feature role, with support — doubtless in more ways than one — from her real-life mother Tilda Swinton, who also plays her mother on screen.

Sweet and sour: Swinton Byrne and Burke. Joanna Hogg¿s achingly middle-class films aren¿t everybody¿s cup of decaffeinated Earl Grey, indeed they aren¿t really mine, but I can appreciate their quiet intensity

Sweet and sour: Swinton Byrne and Burke. Joanna Hogg’s achingly middle-class films aren’t everybody’s cup of decaffeinated Earl Grey, indeed they aren’t really mine, but I can appreciate their quiet intensity

Julie lives in her mum’s Knightsbridge pied-a-terre, where others rather prey on her decency and naivety. 

But the main predator in this story is Anthony (Tom Burke), an urbane, smooth-talking fellow a few years older than her, who claims to have a mysterious job at the Foreign Office. 

Soon they are lovers, but Anthony has been hiding another secret: he is a heroin addict. By now, however, Julie is hooked on him.

It’s a sad tale, and apparently semi-autobiographical, which makes it even more reminiscent of 2009’s An Education, based on Lynn Barber’s memoir. Swinton, as so often, steals every scene she’s in, which in this case means pinching from her own daughter. 

She doesn’t appear much, but there’s a marvellous early scene when she comes to the flat and makes brisk maternal ‘suggestions’, unthinkingly lifting Julie’s hands to check whether she’s biting her nails. It’s very subtly and beautifully done. 

Rating:

There’s no subtlety in Asterix: The Secret Of The Magic Potion (PG) , a somewhat lumpen animation based on the French comic stories which are 60 years old this year. 

I was never into Asterix as a child and never introduced him to my own kids, so I can’t really comment on whether this film stays true to the spirit of the original tales. Given how Americanised it is, I suspect not.

It follows the quest of elderly wizard Getafix to find a young druid worthy of receiving the highly secret recipe of, you’ve guessed it, a magic potion. 

Much of the dialogue will fly well over the heads of the target audience, but there are a few half-decent gags aimed at grown-ups, and a silly Roman senator called Tomcrus, pronounced Tom Cruise.

Rating:

Rough, tough and in the buff!

A Million Little Pieces (15)

Rating:

Verdict: Interesting but flawed

James Frey is a reformed crack addict and alcoholic, who got clean, sobered up, and wrote a thunderously successful memoir called A Million Little Pieces, parts of which he was later found to have invented.

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s drama, of which Frey is one of the executive producers, offers no hint of the controversy. It begins with Frey (played by the director’s husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in a drug-addled frenzy at the end of which he falls backwards off a balcony. 

His family then contrive to get him put on a plane to Minneapolis, where his brother checks him into a rehabilitation clinic. The film, co-written by Sam and Aaron Taylor- Johnson, follows his experiences in rehab.

Sam Taylor-Johnson¿s drama, of which Frey is one of the executive producers, offers no hint of the controversy. It begins with Frey (played by the director¿s husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, above) in a drug-addled frenzy at the end of which he falls backwards off a balcony

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s drama, of which Frey is one of the executive producers, offers no hint of the controversy. It begins with Frey (played by the director’s husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, above) in a drug-addled frenzy at the end of which he falls backwards off a balcony

It’s tough to watch, which of course is no criticism; done properly, films like this always are. But it suffers unnecessarily from a dearth of characterisation. Frey arrives on screen fully formed as an addict and leaves it well on the way to recovery. 

Except for a whimsical sequence in which he sits on a bench next to his younger self, we are told very little of his story, his background, his personality, which makes it difficult to root for him. 

We learn that he broke his parents’ hearts, but that’s the first and last we hear of them. His brother (Charlie Hunnam) features only briefly.

Maybe this is deliberate, encouraging us to define him only by his addiction and his efforts to overcome it, which are facilitated by his growing friendship with a fellow patient, Lilly (Odessa Young). 

But two other recent films with the same theme, last year’s Beautiful Boy and Ben Is Back, gripped me much more because I felt an investment in their central characters, which is lacking here.

All that said, Taylor-Johnson gives a heck of a performance, not so much acting his heart out as acting his guts up. 

He gets charismatic support too from Billy Bob Thornton, playing another patient, who becomes his mentor. I was reminded at times of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), which is never a bad thing.

One final observation: there are a couple of pretty gratuitous full-frontal shots of Taylor-Johnson naked, his admittedly arresting manhood there for all the world to see. 

I wondered about this, knowing that the director is his wife. It feels a little like boasting, on her part if not his.

Round-up from the Venice film festival 

Catherine Deneuve got the 76th Venice Film Festival off to a suitably glamorous start on Wednesday, playing, not exactly against type, a grand old French actress in The Truth.

Deneuve might hope that the comparisons stop there, because her character, Fabienne, is a vain, self-absorbed diva, whose forthcoming autobiography paints her as an attentive mother. 

Her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), who is married to an American TV actor (Ethan Hawke), knows otherwise.

Writer-director Hiro-kazu Kore-ada’s bittersweet comedy about mother-daughter relationships is a little laboured in parts and far from the rousing curtain-raiser we sometimes get here in Venice, but it’s a treat to see 75-year-old Deneuve giving such a playful performance, in particular a priceless Gallic shrug at the expense of Brigitte Bardot.

Rating:

Last night’s world premiere of Ad Astra packed a bigger punch. James Gray’s ambitious sci-fi drama stars Brad Pitt as a courageous astronaut, Roy McBride, sent all the way to Neptune to find his long-lost father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones).

Clifford was the hero of an earlier mission to find intelligent life in the outer reaches of the galaxy. Though long considered to have perished, he is now believed to be still alive and responsible in some way for power surges threatening the entire solar system.

There’s plenty of baffling science but the film throbs with energy and empathy, thanks mostly to Pitt’s powerful performance as a loyal spaceman and conflicted son.

Rating:

I loved Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s funny, painful analysis of divorce, American-style.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are wonderful as parents of a young son who, but for the Californian lawyers they hire, deliciously played by Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, might have a chance of reconciliation. 

It’s a Netflix film but will have a cinematic release in November. If you are, or have ever been, married, don’t miss it.

Rating:

The Vulture

If you see one thing

On Show

This is the first museum exhibition of her paintings for 16 years, so you can judge for yourself

This is the first museum exhibition of her paintings for 16 years, so you can judge for yourself

Kings Of Leon, Rudimental, right, and Little Mix are among the acts visiting Liverpool¿s Sefton Park this weekend for the Fusion Presents and Fusion Festivals

Kings Of Leon, Rudimental, right, and Little Mix are among the acts visiting Liverpool’s Sefton Park this weekend for the Fusion Presents and Fusion Festivals

Bridget Riley 

‘Op Art’ as it was once called, had a great vogue in the 1960s but Bridget Riley, one of its founders, who has been working for 60 years, is the last one standing, and now sometimes called our ‘greatest living painter’. 

This is the first museum exhibition of her paintings for 16 years, so you can judge for yourself.

Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, until September 22

Robin Simon

On Tour

Fusion Festival

Kings Of Leon, Rudimental, right, and Little Mix are among the acts visiting Liverpool’s Sefton Park this weekend for the Fusion Presents and Fusion Festivals. 

The entertainment gets underway today (August 30) as Kings Of Leon are joined by Franz Ferdinand, Jake Bugg, Echo & The Bunnymen and Sam Fender for the rock-orientated Fusion Presents. 

Tomorrow’s sister event, Fusion Festival, features Rudimental and continues into Sunday with Little Mix, Anne-Marie and Mabel (thefusionfestival.co.uk).

Adrian Thrills

Holliday Grainger, above, is the detective digging deeper. Stay tuned for Hollywood stars Famke Janssen and Ron Perlman in later episodes

Holliday Grainger, above, is the detective digging deeper. Stay tuned for Hollywood stars Famke Janssen and Ron Perlman in later episodes 

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, above, star in Simon Woods¿s play about a Tory politician (Jennings) returning to his Cotswold home in 1988 to find it in disarray

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, above, star in Simon Woods’s play about a Tory politician (Jennings) returning to his Cotswold home in 1988 to find it in disarray

On TV

The Capture

Could this edgy thriller, which taps into very modern concerns over surveillance, be the new Bodyguard? 

Callum Turner plays a soldier accused of the abduction of a young woman. The CCTV footage seems conclusive — but the case is not as simple as it first appears. 

Holliday Grainger, above, is the detective digging deeper. Stay tuned for Hollywood stars Famke Janssen and Ron Perlman in later episodes.

Tuesday, 9pm, BBC1.

Mike Mulvihill

On Stage

Hansard

How about this for timing? Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, right, star in Simon Woods’s play about a Tory politician (Jennings) returning to his Cotswold home in 1988 to find it in disarray. 

His wife (Duncan) has a filthy hangover and a fox has destroyed the garden. Could this somehow be a metaphor for the malaise of today’s political elite? Simon Godwin directs on the National’s Lyttelton stage.

Previewing now, opens Tuesday, National Theatre, London (020 7452 3000 or nationaltheatre.org.uk).

Patrick Marmion 

Source for this story.

Written by Bent Views

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