Directed by Eva Husson, Mothering Sunday is a film adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel of the same name. Starring Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Colin Firth and Olivia Colman, the story follows the events of Mother’s Day in 1924 as experienced by young maid Jane (Young).
Told in a non-linear narrative, we see an older Jane (Glenda Jackson) reflecting on a particular day in her past – notably, 30th March 1924, when the aristocratic Nivens family chooses to spend the day with their friends, the Sheringhams, and gives Jane the day off. Although she discloses plans for a day of relaxation in the countryside, we soon discover that she is having an affair with Paul Sherringham (O’Connor), an aspiring lawyer who is engaged to the haughty Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy). As the film goes on, we see that the remainder of the day changes Jane’s life forever.
Like all fairy tales, Mothering Sunday starts with ‘Once Upon a Time’ but unlike some, there is a deep feeling of melancholia laced throughout the film. The characters are sullen due to the loss of loved ones due to the war or suffer heartbreak in some form to create a woeful narrative. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the older characters, especially Mrs Nivens (Colman), are driven to distraction and unable to function normally without dithering to fill awkward silences. But the theme of heartbreak is more profound in protagonist Jane: an orphan, she hasn’t experienced the same level of loss as her employers and is aware that she can only do so much as a lowly maid. After spending a morning with Paul, she is left to her own devices and spends some time in a state of uninhibited bliss, only to be catapulted into an array of unfamiliar emotions when the day ends abruptly. Despite Jane being more closed-off in her later years, we see that this also isn’t enough to avoid a feeling of desolation.
Amid Jamie Ramsey’s sublime cinematography, Alice Birch‘s screenplay and Husson’s direction exude a decadence through the sensual yet practically indecent scenes between Paul and Jane, which highlight Young and O’Connor’s intimate performances. Their taboo relationship and its lingering emotional resonance dominate the film, so there is not much else to drive the story. As a result, other cast performances and additional plot elements such as Jane’s tender relationship with Donald (Sope Dìrísù) feel under-explored. In addition, the drawn-out, non-linear narrative bounces from various points of time in such an incoherent manner that it prevents audiences from feeling the extent of Jane’s turmoil, which is exacerbated by the film’s dissatisfying ending.
Although Mothering Sunday presents a beautiful and tender exploration into the angst stemming from love and loss, it slowly becomes lost in its artistic direction before succumbing to an overwhelming sense of despondency.
Director: Eva Husson, Alice Birch (screenwriter)
Stars: Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Glenda Jackson, Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, Sope Dirisu, Emma D’Arcy
Runtime: 110 minutes