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Mothering Sunday

Starring Aussie talent Odessa Young and ‘The Crown’ standout Josh O'Connor, plus Colin Firth and Olivia Colman, this handsome 1920s-set British drama is passionate, sensual and exceptionally cast.
By Sarah Ward
June 02, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
June 02, 2022
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Is there anything more intimate than wandering around someone's home when they're not there, gently rifling through their things, and — literally or not, your choice — spending a few minutes standing in their shoes? Yes, but there's still an intoxicating sense of closeness that comes with the territory; moseying curiously in another's house without their company, after they've entrusted their most personal space to you alone, will understandably do that. In Mothering Sunday, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young, The Staircase) finds herself in this very situation. She's naked, and as comfortable as she's ever been anywhere. After her lover Paul Sheringham (Josh O'Connor, Emma) leaves her in a state of postcoital bliss, she makes the most of his family's large abode in the English countryside, the paintings and books that fill its walls and shelves, and the pie and beer tempting her tastebuds in the kitchen. The result: some of this 1920s-set British drama's most evocative and remarkable moments.

Jane is used to such lofty spaces, but rarely as a carefree resident. She's an aspiring writer, an orphan and the help; he's firmly from money. She works as a maid for the Sheringhams' neighbours, the also-wealthy Godfrey (Colin Firth, Operation Mincemeat) and Clarrie Niven (Olivia Colman, Heartstopper), and she's ventured next door while everyone except Paul is out. This rare day off is the occasion that gives the stately but still highly moving film its name as well — Mother's Day, but initially designed to honour mother churches, aka where one was baptised — and the well-to-do crowd are all lunching to celebrate Paul's impending nuptials to fiancée Emma Hobday (Emma D'Arcy, Misbehaviour). He made excuses to arrive late, though, in order to steal some time with Jane, as they've both been doing for years. Of course, he can't completely shirk his own party.

Mothering Sunday does more than luxuriate in Jane's languid stroll around a sprawling manor, or the happiness that precedes it — much, much more — but these scenes stand out for a reason. They're a showcase for Australian actor Young, who has graduated from playing troubled daughters (see: 2015's The Daughter and the unrelated Looking for Grace) to searching young women cementing their place in the world (see also: 2020's Shirley). With her quietly potent and radiant help, they say oh-so-much about Jane that wouldn't have sported the same power if conveyed via dialogue. They're also exactly the kind of sequences that screenwriter Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth) knows well, although she isn't merely repeating herself. Helping pen the page-to-screen adaptations of Sally Rooney's Normal People and Conversations with Friends, she's inherently at home revealing everything she can about her characters just by observing what they do when no one's watching.

The broader story in Mothering Sunday also springs from a book, this time from Graham Swift's 2016 novel, with French filmmaker Eva Husson (Girls of the Sun) making her English-language debut in the director's chair. Swift didn't choose an annual occasion at random, with the day cloaked in sadness in the Sheringham and Niven households — and across Britain — in the shadow of the First World War and all the young men lost to the conflict. Indeed, marking Paul's engagement is the best way to spend the date because his brothers, and the Nivens' boys too, will never have the same chance. The need to don a stiff upper lip, to keep calm and carry on, and to embody every other grin-and-bear-it cliche about English stoicism is deeply rooted in grief here, and more will come in this touching feature before the sunny March day that sits at its centre is over.

In lesser hands than Swift's, Husson's and Birch's, Jane might've been a peripheral player — or one part in a straightforward upstairs-downstairs setup that could've stepped directly out of Downton Abbey. Thankfully, that isn't Mothering Sunday either as a book or a movie. While class clashes are inescapable within the film's frames, it's how the eponymous date shapes Jane, and how moments both big and small change anyone, that dwells at its core. The picture also flits forward to its protagonist as a writer, where she's drawn back to that past idyll and heartbreak while navigating a relationship with Oxford philosopher Donald (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Gangs of London). And, it jumps further into the future still, where the even-older Jane (Glenda Jackson, making her first movie since 1990's King of the Wind) has spent decades reflecting on that one Mothering Sunday, plus the other joys and losses life has brought her way, in her head, heart and through her work.

It's easy to think you know what to expect with Mothering Sunday. Within its 104-minute running time, its pace is as leisurely as British dramas come. Whether roving around the Sheringhams' mansion, the garden party or less lavish places, Jamie Ramsay's (Moffie) cinematography is the epitome of handsome. Also, reteaming The Crown's O'Connor and Colman signals its emphasis on performances (Young and Firth pair up again, too, but the film actually pre-dates their work on HBO miniseries The Staircase). And yet, Mothering Sunday is also never that formulaic, and it isn't merely the movie that could've been constructed simply by connecting the obvious dots. Husson's and Birch's touches give it a gloriously sensual feel, and not only in the lingering sex scenes, their thrusting bodies and even the stains that a tumble in the sheets can cause.

Clearly, the two women who've turned Mothering Sunday into a yearning, sultry and textured splash of celluloid have taken the narrative's message to heart: that leaping in, lapping up whatever delights come your way, and also facing the pain if and when it comes, is always better than holding back to avoid the scantest trace of woe. There's nothing overtly forceful about Young and O'Connor's performances, but the same can be said of the wonderful duo, who could fuel several movies with their chemistry alone. That Firth and Colman don't have quite the same presence fits with their characters, though, who nonetheless prove an affecting portrait of post-war mourning. And while there's little that's left unsaid in Morgan Kibby's emotive score, her third for Husson — or in three-time Oscar-winner Sandy Powell's (The Young Victoria, The Aviator, Shakespeare in Love) eye-catching, period-appropriate costuming, either — that too couldn't be more apt, with the film revelling in what it can when it can.

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