Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, Emma D’Arcy, Sope Dirisu, Glenda Jackson
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… given such a lush and evocative treatment by Husson that it defies the conventions that many British period pictures succumb to.
French director Eve Husson (Girls of the Sun) defies expectations in her sensual and poetic film Mothering Sunday. What at first appears to be a stuffy British period piece becomes a deeply affecting examination of grief, class, rebirth, and reinvention.
In 1924, England is still awash with grief over those lives lost in WWI. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is a servant at Beechwood House owned by the Nivens who lost their sons in the war. Mr Niven (Colin Firth) is a pleasant but fragile presence whose stoicism exists to prop up the overwhelming heartache of his wife, Clarrie (Olivia Colman). Clarrie has become distant to the point of near non-existence and her former joy for life has been snuffed out.
Jane, who was given up for adoption at birth, is a “constant watcher” of the Nivens and the other wealthy families they dolefully socialise with. One family in particular, the Sheringhams also share the loss of two sons, with the remaining son Paul (Josh O’Connor) becoming a substitute child for all, and a last symbol of hope in their profound grief.
On Mother’s Day, the respective families decide to have a picnic which acts as a double celebration for the upcoming nuptials between Paul and his social equal Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy). The match is a loveless one as Emma was in love with one of the young set who perished in the fighting.
On this day, Paul and Jane, who have been carrying on an extended affair, will meet and make love one last time. The nature of their affair appears somewhat hard to pin down, but within it, Jane insists they meet as equals. The bright morning that envelopes Jane as she bicycles to Paul’s manor house fills the frame with the promise of pleasure and abandonment. Jane’s long hair let loose from the formal braids she wears whilst working, streams behind her.
Entering Paul’s darkened house, the young couple emit a light that speaks of life within the tomb of grieving. They make love and freely study each other’s bodies. The pure sensuality of their lovemaking is captured by Jamie Ramsay’s exquisite cinematography, which is similarly arresting and lush throughout the film.
Paul leaves to attend the picnic and Jane remains in the house exploring its grandeur whilst naked. This small act of rebellion is emblematic of who Jane is. Not to be defined by her class or position, Jane is something more – a born writer who will manifest her destiny regardless of the circumstances she was born into. In some ways, she is freer than the gentry that she served, who are tied to their class and the expectations that come from that.
A subtle comparison Husson makes is between Jane examining herself naked in Paul’s bedroom mirror, and Emma who uses her mirror to make up herself into a pristine vision of upper-class beauty and fashion. Emma is trapped by societal expectations that Jane wilfully defies.
Although the narrative is weighted in the events of 1924, the portrait of Jane is more encompassing. Working in a bookstore, she meets a young philosopher named Donald (Sope Dirisu) who will become her lover and eventually her husband. In the format of a narrative within a narrative, we see Jane at three distinct stages of her life: her time at Beechwood House, her relationship with Donald in her middle years, and finally in her dotage as a feted novelist played by the great Glenda Jackson.
Adapted from Graham Swift’s novella of the same name by the tremendously talented writer Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth), Mothering Sunday is a tone-poem about the life of a woman who is able to rise from loss through her art. Jane Fairchild, as Clarrie Niven clumsily attests was “comprehensively bereaved at birth” because she never had a family. Jane epitomises the self-made woman who has learned to live on her own terms.
The performances in the film are genuinely excellent. Odessa Young proves herself to be one of the best emerging talents that has come out of Australia. Josh O’Connor emits the same sensual energy as he did in Francis Lee’s marvellous God’s Own Country. Screen veterans Firth and Colman do not disappoint in their small but pivotal roles. As a supporting character, Sope Dirisu (His House) is stellar and rightfully deserves his place as one of Britain’s most impressive contemporary actors.
A film that could have easily fallen into the trap of sentimental stuffiness is given such a lush and evocative treatment by Husson that it defies the conventions that many British period pictures succumb to. At its heart, Mothering Sunday is an exquisite portrait of an unconventional woman whose self-determination leads her through a life, although not always easy, that is defined by her will. The film exposes the audience to the tragedies and triumphs of life that exist in both the smallest moments and the biggest – it is a film that shows that melodrama is distinctly more multi-layered than it has been commonly regarded in recent times, and certainly very potent.