Mothering Sunday follows Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), a maid on her day off. It’s the perfect time for her to meet up with her secret partner. But this day isn’t going to turn out the way Jane expects it to.
Eva Husson (director), Alice Birch (screenplay writer), Jamie Ramsay (cinematographer), Emilie Orsini (editor)
Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Glenda Jackson, Patsy Ferran, Emma D’Arcy (cast)
Based on the Mothering Sunday novella by Graham Swift
September 10, 2021 (TIFF)
It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that Mothering Sunday is about because this film delves into so many things. There are obvious class differences between Jane and the world she must inhabit. Not only does Jane work for a wealthy family, the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), but her secret lover is the son of the Nivens’ neighbour, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor).
Though Paul and Jane are clearly in love, they both know their relationship is doomed. Paul feels duty-bound to follow in his family’s traditions: become a lawyer and marry the right kind of woman. Jane doesn’t fit the bill. But that doesn’t stop them from conducting their relationship whenever they can, even as Paul’s impending marriage looms over them like the grim reaper.
While the first two acts of Mothering Sunday focus on Jane and Paul’s romance, the final act pivots to what this film is really about—grief. Most of the plot takes place in 1924, after World War I. Though it isn’t immediately obvious, the majority of the characters are grieving immense losses. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the Nivens have suffered greatly, and neither husband nor wife is coping as well as they think they do.
These ruminations on loss become acute through Jane’s love for Paul and later for her husband, Donald (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). Companionship breeds friendship, which breeds love, and unfortunately, opens the door to the possibility of loss.
I’m not a huge fan of period dramas or romances. I didn’t expect to be engrossed, let alone moved by Mothering Sunday. But I was. This film, while encompassing both those genres, manages to weave in so much more. We’re still in a pandemic, which is why I watched this film via TIFF Digital, and loss has been a mainstay for most people over the last 18 months. Studies on grief are often powerful, but Mothering Sunday does it well thanks to great pacing and suspense and it stayed with me after the end credits.
Director Eva Husson plays with flashbacks and flash-forwards in interesting ways in the film. There are clues strewn throughout the film that foreshadow what’s to come and what happened before. Some of them felt like dead giveaways, which made the ones that I didn’t readily connect to the plot that much more startling. There’s a revelation near the end of the film that was so unexpected, it completely changed my understanding of the story. I feel like I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. I love being surprised in a film, and Husson and writer Alice Birch did it brilliantly here.
The cinematography by Jamie D. Ramsay is stunning. There’s a melancholic tone that somehow permeates even the bright outdoor settings and beautiful autumn colors. You know this is a sad film; you just don’t know why until the end.
This is not a film for younger audiences. There is a ton of nudity in this film, not all of it of a sexual nature. Nudity in films can be off-putting at times but it’s refreshingly natural in Mothering Sunday. Another reason why diversity behind the scenes makes such a difference.
The performances in Mothering Sunday are naturally good. Odessa Young carries the film; she has to because she’s the protagonist. She has her work cut out and I wasn’t always sure she was up to the challenge. There were prolonged scenes where Young appeared to have one expression plastered on her face. So, when she got to break through and express Jane’s real feelings, I felt it all the more strongly. I still feel like Young could have shown more range but that is likely a stylistic choice rather than a flaw.
I felt quite the same way with Josh O’Connor but his lack of facial expression is quickly justified in the film. This is a man left to survive in a world that has no good in it. Guilty of nothing but being alive, O’Connor’s Paul is figuratively wearing a mask, even if nobody else can see it.
Much will be made of Olivia Colman and Colin Firth’s appearances in this film, but they are not the stars. Their roles are curtailed and that is a great decision. Because, my word, are they brilliant. In their limited screentime, Colman and Firth convey so much love, loss, and their characters’ absolute inability to cope in the face of overwhelming grief. It is startling.
I wasn’t sure whether I would like Mothering Sunday. A sad film in sad times is a tough ask. But this film works. It embraces grief and that never-ending sense of loss that so many are experiencing right now. If you don’t want to feel sad, this may not be the film for you. But if you want a reflection of the human condition again, this is the film to tune into.