Grief is an ever-present pain. It can reduce you into a shell of the person you once were, rob you of your joy. It can be the catalyst for a remarkable life. Act as inspiration for a great passion. Grief and how one remembers loss is never quite the same person to person. To lose someone you love is difficult, which is what Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday grapples with.
The story follows Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) who was once a maid at the Niven’s house. We begin the story with Jane tending to Mr and Mrs Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), who are having a strained one-sided conversation that is too formal for a married couple. We quickly learn during the opening sequence that the Nivens have lost their sons to World War I, and another family, the Sheringham’s, have also lost two of their three boys. The story revolves around the impending marriage of Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor) to Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy) and the lingering pain from the loss of the four boys, one of which was once betrothed to Emma. Jane reminisce about her illicit affair with Paul until something shocking occurs on one seemingly ordinary Mothering Sunday. This would be a moment that Jane will remember forever.
The film is a tale about grief, loss, and reminiscing. With Jane as our primary character, we are shown things only from her perspective, that is when the narrative breaks off to highlight the Nivens and Emma. While the film thrives on its portrayal of the lingering pain from grief and the difficulty to return to normal, it stumbles with effectively relaying the hardship of our characters.
The film is sublime, with exquisite shots of the English countryside and the typical flavouring of a quaint of British period drama, however, the story simply lacks momentum as Jane Fairchild is not entirely the most compelling narrator or protagonist. If anything she is simply a conduit in which other characters can express great depth of emotion. Understandably, this framing device is faithful to Graham Swift’s novel of the same name, but changes in perspective would have strengthened the narrative. Or perhaps a stronger character study on Jane would have too.
The narrative structure of the film is all well and good, but the true reason to indulge yourself with Mothering Sunday is the performances. Each are exceptional in their own right. Odessa Young is enticing enough as the quietly unassuming Jane, who is hardly indistinguishable from your average period drama heroine. Young manages to save Jane from being entirely uninteresting with a innate charisma that shines through in key moments. In stark contrast, Emma D’Arcy utterly devours the role of Emma Hobday who is uninterested in returning to the quint life that was once enjoyed, before the war. They portray the type of grief that causes people to feel contempt for others and a desire to retreat. D’Arcy is given the material to do a lot with what little we see of their character.
As for Josh O’Connor, Colin Firth, and Olivia Colman, they all do a superb job portraying each of their character’s deeply wounded hearts as they are all related by blood to the young men lost at war. Colman proves that she is amongst the greatest actresses to grace the screen as she so effortlessly weaves in and out of Mrs Niven’s outward despair with a deft hand. O’Connor provides a compelling and nuanced performance of someone entranced by their pain and who is clearly suffering from survivor’s remorse. Paul is eager to find an escape yet unable to come to terms with the hurt. It is heartbreaking to watch O’Conner force a smile upon his face as Paul gazes upon the woman he loves as he heads out to have brunch with his ill-matched fiance. Firth is perhaps the most subdued of the trio as he portrays the hopelessly hopeful character amongst the pack. It is an understated performance that balances all the rest who exemplify a particular stage of grief.
Mothering Sunday is an intoxicating mixture of what we all seek in a period drama, with an added touch of sensuality and melancholy that gives off that feeling of lingering sorrow. Husson’s direction adequately captures the complicated feelings that come from loss and love and then some. Capturing such exemplary performances as well as blending the central theme and narrative makes Mothering Sunday a sobering watch, but one that is worth it. Come for the sumptuous directing, stay for the excellent performances, and don’t forget to have a box of tissues at your disposal.
Mothering Sunday had its North American premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival
by Ferdosa Abdi