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(Credit: TIFF)


'Mothering Sunday' Review: Eva Husson's tender, ill-fated romantic tale

'Mothering Sunday' - Eva Husson

“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end…but not necessarily in that order.” Jean-Luc Godard

Director Eva Husson comes from two fairly action-packed projects – including battlefield drama Girls of the Sun and television series Hanna – to direct an entirely different kind of film, one that’s far quieter and with virtually no dramatic action. Mothering Sunday is a dreamy, free-flowing series of ideas, memories, emotions, and personal interactions, set in an unconventional plotline that allows a constant shift from present to past or future. The film is based on the 2016 novel by Graham Swift, adapted for the screen by Alice Birch. The novel is subtitled A Romance, but that almost seems like a deliberate inaccuracy, even sarcasm. A romance, of sorts, is the main plot thread, but despite its central position, it serves largely as a jumping-off point for every other direction the story takes. 

The film opens on the protagonist and primary focus of the film, young housemaid Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), taking in every detail of the expansive grounds of a country estate through a window she is cleaning. She seems to study and examine every object she comes in contact with, to assess every person in the room quietly; throughout the film, her thoughtful attention is made visible through adept camera work. It is 1924, and much of the country is still dealing with the aftermath of the war – including Jane’s employers, the Nivens, who have lost a son. The disquiet and unresolved grieving of many of the local families comes across indirectly, first introduced by way of the Nivens, played perfectly by Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman. Mr Nivens’ false cheer and constant talk of the weather in the face of his wife’s rigid lack of emotion and refusal to respond to him, sum up the mood of several of the bereaved families in their neighbourhood, whose loved ones, the sons and heirs, did not return from the war. 

There are other consequences of the many battlefield deaths, which are revealed gradually and poignantly as the film follows multiple characters through their day. Tragedy and its consequences are key plot points in Mothering Sunday. Director Husson commented on this aspect of the film at the Toronto Film Festival screening: “I absolutely fell in love with the script. It arrived at a time of great personal loss, and it resonated enormously with me.” Husson also spoke of filming in 2020, during Covid lockdown, which she felt added something to the tone of the film.

As the main storyline begins, it is Mothering Sunday, and the Nivens’ servants are given part of the day free. Jane is evasive about her plans for the afternoon, which turn out to be a tryst with a young man, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor of The Crown), the sole surviving son of the Nivens’ friends. Jane and Paul’s time together is the central event, returned to again and again as other things take place, shown in great detail and extended over almost the entire length of the film. Meanwhile, the Nivens have an outdoor dinner with two other equally wealthy and distinguished families, an occasion made deeply uncomfortable by Mrs Nivens’ barely concealed grief and bitterness, and the constant efforts to veer away from the elephant in the room: the dead sons who did not return home from the war. One pertinent fact does come to light: the surviving sons are under tremendous pressure to fulfil their parents’ expectations. Paul Sheringham is above Jane’s social station, and their romance would not be well regarded; he is obligated to marry a woman of his own station. It is clear, even during their meeting, that his affair with Jane will have to end. 

The young couple’s day together is shot in leisurely detail, dwelling at great length on their conversations, their lovemaking, and their lounging together naked. The sexual scenes are sometimes graphic, but the intent seems to be less about eroticism than highlighting Jane’s personality through her reactions. She is inexperienced but is calmly inquisitive, examining sexual data with the same thoughtful regard she earlier gave the landscape, teacups, and the interactions at the family breakfast table.

When Paul has to leave, she stays on at his parents’ house for some time afterwards, unselfconsciously wandering through the rooms completely naked, impassively examining everything, affectionately studying the books in the fine library, casually helping herself to food in the kitchen before at last dressing and returning home. The significance of this day will be made clear later; for now, we assume its importance from the amount of time spent on it. The film then turns to the uncomfortable dinner, at which Paul Sheringham’s engagement is discussed and toasted. Jane becoming aware of Paul’s engagement to another woman provides a milestone in the first act.

(Credit: TIFF)

The film is attractive visually, full of moody lighting and effective camera work, and the cast remarkable; however, the action is often far too slow and apparently directionless. The most interesting aspect is its manipulation of time to expand the story. It uses glimpses of the past – mostly Jane’s – to suggest the causes of what is currently taking place. This exploration of root causes is also introduced into the dialogue, as when the consequences of Jane’s orphanhood is hinted at by Mrs Nevins. We are given explanations of Jane’s calm, almost scientific observation of the world; of her composure in the face of heartbreak or disappointment, as well as a hint of her active imagination. 

The story picks up when we begin to see glimpses of the future as well as the past, gradually expanding to reveal the life of the older Jane, who has become a writer, successful and respected, although involved in yet another controversial relationship. She experiences tragedy but also encouragement and support. The movement from past to present to future becomes more frequent and erratic as the story progresses, and we begin to see the point of all this time travel: it is meant to explain Jane’s development as a writer, and as a human being, through the impact of events in her life. We see the connection between her first love affair with Paul and her later, more equitable and long-lasting relationship with another man, a philosopher. There are also minor associations and sources scattered through the film: when Jane reverently examines the books in the Nevins’ well-stocked library, we see brief flashes of her envying the books in the Sheringhams’ home, and of a slightly older Jane at her dream job in a bookshop. During a scene from her future, in which she discusses her success as a writer, we see a glimpse of young Jane receiving her first typewriter, a gift from the bookshop owner, which sped her along in her early writing efforts. 

Most of all, the film is about the life of a writer and how her work draws from reality. Many of the events presented early in the film are later seen to inspire some of the older Jane’s prose, including the tragic deaths of loved ones at different stages of her life. A fantasy scenario she once made up, during her afternoon with Paul, appears, word for word, in one of Jane’s novels many years later. Young Jane is seen expressing her grief after a personal tragedy by writing it out in her diary, which will later find its way into her fiction. The concept is brought full circle when we finally meet elderly Jane – played by the legendary Glenda Jackson in a small cameo role. As she learns of a significant achievement in her career as a writer, she imagines her younger self, Jane the housemaid, participating in the event. The words the older Jane speaks are seen coming from the lips of the girl wandering naked around her lover’s family home, emphasising that they are the same person despite the many changes elderly Jane has gone through and that the older writer owes a great deal to the experiences of her earlier self. 

Mothering Sunday is notable, as mentioned above, for its look, its high production values, and its care in setting a mood. The cast is impeccable, including outstanding actors even in reasonably small roles. Its basic concept is also interesting and dealt with in often creative and intriguing ways. The time-slipping idea is unfortunately just a bit repetitive, occasionally rambling and confusing, and not quite clever enough to prevent the rather slow-moving story from dragging at times. Overall, however, it is an often engrossing, frequently beautiful, and always earnest and heartfelt story, carefully presented and well worth a look. 

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