Mothering Sunday – movie review

Mothering Sunday is a period drama about doomed love which comes across like an edgier variation on Upstairs Downstairs.

The film is set mainly in the spring of 1924. The central character is Jane Fairchild (played by Australian actress Odessa Young), a maid working for the aristocratic Niven family. Jane is an orphan and although she has no family and no formal education she dreams of making her way through life. It’s Mother’s Day, and Godfrey (Colin Firth) and Clarrie Niven (Olivia Colman) decide to give Jane the day off while they go to an outdoor family gathering. The Nivens are still struggling to cope with the tragic loss of two sons during WWI and their relationship is largely shaped by awkward silences.

Given the day off, Jane heads off to visit her lover Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), the wealthy son of a neighbouring family, who is training to become a lawyer. The pair share an afternoon of intimacy and conversations.

Paul however is engaged to Emma (a frosty Emma D’Arcy). When he heads off to join her for the Mother’s Day celebrations, he is killed in a tragic car crash. Jane is consumed by guilt and grief, and these emotions shape the rest of her life. Soon Jane leaves the employ of the Nivens and works in a bookshop, where she forms a relationship with Donald (Sope Dirisu), a fellow writer. Jane becomes a successful award-winning novelist, played by dual Oscar winning and Tony award winning actress Glenda Jackson in her first screen role in three decades.

Young is impressive with an understated performance that ranks as amongst her best work to date. Colman brings a cold and distant quality to her performance as Clarrie Niven, who has lost her spark and seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while Firth is solid as her concerned husband who seems unable to lift her spirits. His performance is tinged with a hint of sadness.

Mothering Sunday is based on the 2016 novel written by Booker Prize winning author Graham Swift (Last Orders) and has been adapted to the screen by playwright Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth). This is a fairly dour and downbeat film. Unfortunately, we don’t get to learn much about most of the characters here and it is hard to become emotionally invested in them. The film moves back and forth in time, and the splintered nonlinear narrative structure and glacial pacing is at times frustrating.

The director is Eva Husson who has a distinctive visual style, thanks largely to the cinematography of Jamie Ramsay (the tough South African drama Beauty). Ramsay works in closeup during the sex scenes, which lends both an intimacy and a sense of claustrophobia to the material.

The film boasts some great opulent production design from Helen Scott (Wuthering Heights) that captures this genteel world of privilege, and the period details are excellent and Sandy Powell’s exquisite costumes reek of authenticity. Morgan Kibby’s score is evocative and haunting and perfectly suits the overall tone of the material.

Mothering Sunday is a film about loss and grief but there’s a coldness to the film that keeps audiences at a distance. There is plenty of sex and nudity here, but little else to engage the viewer who might be looking for something a bit more profound.

Greg King

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