‘Mothering Sunday’ Is An Intimate And Delicate Romantic Drama

Sony Pictures Classics

Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth, Normal People) tastefully adapts Graham Swift’s novella of doomed romance in post-World War I Britain, set in the backdrop of mourning and survivor’s guilt.

Odessa Young plays Jane, a young maid at a grand house ruled over by Mr and Mrs Niven (an underused Colin Firth and Olivia Colman). They lead a sorrowful life of what-ifs after all their sons were slaughtered on the French battlefield. Jane is having a passionate affair with the well-born son of the neighbours, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), despite his engagement to a woman of his own class. The Nivens and the Sheringhams are so close they are practically family, their tragedies and traumas fluidly linking together. 

Directed beautifully by Eva Husson (Girls of the Sun), Mothering Sunday subtlety depicts the survivor guilt felt by those who returned from the front. Despite the harrowing sights he has seen, he is expected to have a prestigious career and marriage to someone from the correct class, Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy).

On Mother Sunday 1924, Jane’s day off, she plans to cycle to Paul’s house while everyone else is away. They spend this afternoon languidly making love and sauntering around the grand house nude. Not much happens, but every shot looks like a painting. There is a sombreness to the romance like they know this is the end of their relationship and they will never see each other again.

The sex and nudity are refreshingly frank and skip all the tweeness associated with cosy Sunday afternoon British period dramas. There is no squeamishness about nudity and bodily fluids as he explains birth control and how babies are conceived to Jane. O’Connor is effortlessly charming and easily creates chemistry with his Australian co-star. Much like Only You and God’s Only Country (and to some extent The Crown), he registers intimacy without coming across as lecherous.

Sony Pictures Classics

Written and directed by women and narrated by a woman looking back at her life, despite the nudity and between the sheets action, it never becomes objectifying of Young or O’Connor. The cinematography is beautiful and delicate, using natural lighting to highlight the texture of two bodies. It also has the glow of a middle-aged woman remembering her first love.

Firth and Colman don’t have much to work with yet set the entire tone for the film. Firth has always played the subtlety of grief better than most of his peers, stumbling through the normality of life in post-war Britain. Colman is brisk and brittle, every line delivered with a haunting emptiness. She has the one scene that will linger with you, where she is envious of Jane being born with relatively nothing, as it means she has nothing to lose.

Birch’s screenplay struggles when it jumps ahead to Jane’s relationship with philosopher Donald (His House’s Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, given little to do) in the 1950s. Young, is even with some light ageing makeup, doesn’t make a convincing 40-year-old. The almost pointless jump ahead to Glenda Jackson, playing Jane as a revered author, is even less convincing. Jackson, in her first big-screen performance in decades, is entirely wasted as a Doris Lessing type.

Swift’s 2016 novel is centred on the loss felt during a Mothering Sunday meal between families coping with loss after the war. Birch and Husson concentrate more on the romance and class divide between the young lovers. The alternative focus on the screenplay means opportunities to really resonate emotionally are missed. It also means the supporting cast gets neglected, although they do an excellent job at setting the tone.

Mothering Sunday does just about skirt the over-explored narrative of classes in early 20th century Britain. It’s nice to see the lower classes portrayed as something more than just oppressed, even if Jane’s rise to a successful author seems unlikely. 

Mothering Sunday is a beautifully crafted movie, with long Terrence Malick-like shots of country lanes and flowers in a field. All accompanied by a rather disconnected voiceover from somewhere in time that never really helps us get inside Jane’s head. Considering Jane’s talent as a writer, we never really get to fully learn who these people are.

Mothering Sunday opened in limited theatres on March 25

by Amelia Harvey

Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy

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