England, 1924 — World War I has been over for half a decade, but for many, the wounds of the Great War are still fresh. That’s the backdrop for Eva Husson’s sumptuous, dreamlike Mothering Sunday, an adaptation of the novel by Graham Swift that uses the trappings of pastoral English aristocracy to explore the impermanence of time and love, and how we must carry on even after life takes it all away.
Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is a maid for the Nivens (played by Academy Award winners Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), the nice, reserved family friends and neighbors of the Sheringhams, whose sole remaining son Paul (Josh O’Connor) — his brothers died as children, emotional scars both families carry to this day — is set to be wed to Emma (Emma D’arcy), the daughter of another set of family friends, in two weeks’ time. Only thing is, Paul is carrying on an illicit affair with Jane behind closed doors, the two sneaking quick encounters when no one is looking.
But on Mother’s Day (the “Mothering Sunday” of the film’s title), Jane and Paul will get the chance to have Paul’s house to themselves for the morning, setting off one last adulterous rendezvous that will prove more final than they may expect.
In keeping with the dreamlike, formally experimental tone of Swift’s book, Alice Burch’s script flits back and forth in time, anchoring this pivotal morning in Jane’s life to two distinct times in the future. It’s not long before we intuit that Paul and Jane’s tryst has a shelf life: Burch and Husson treat us to scenes of an adult Jane, now a writer engaged to another author (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) with whom she attempts to remember the details of that morning for her latest book. (We even get the occasional glimpse of a wizened Jane in old age (Glenda Jackson), having reconciled the impermanence of time and love.)
Admittedly, this approach jars more than it enlightens: it’s hard not to feel a bit of emotional whiplash as Jane’s fractured memories (and Emilie Orsini’s editing) jump us from one memory, one shade of detail, to another. Some scenes linger too long, while we’re denied the pleasures of others we want to see. It’s meant to evoke the elemental, sensory nature of nostalgia — how a word or an image can transport us to another time — but it ends up disrupting the narrative flow of the much more compelling central story.
And to its credit, when we are grounded in that fateful, tragic Mothering Sunday, the film feels wistful and alive. Young and O’Connor have a brittle, winsome chemistry, capably inhabiting two souls framed by tragedy and the confines of their circumstances, stealing a rare moment of bliss together they know they can’t keep forever. Most of their morning is spent in post-coital lounging, Husson framing their alabaster bodies like Greco-Roman paintings when she’s not artfully choreographing their passionate lovemaking. There’s a quiet intimacy to their scenes together, the ornately decorated room serving as a refuge for their troubles (alongside Morgan Kibby’s stark, yearning score).
But for all these sumptuous details (and the painterly eroticism with which Husson renders her love scenes), there’s a tonal flatness that pervades and inhibits Mothering Sunday. The air is thick with grief, both for the Nivens and the Sharinghams, two families reeling from the unimaginable losses they seem resigned to wallow in for life. (Colman, in one of few brief but memorable scenes, expresses the weight of their resignation in fine form.) Even Paul recognizes the dead-end nature of his and Jane’s affair because of the expectations placed on him: he must become a lawyer, after all, and he must marry Emma because she was betrothed to his late brother.
Jane, an orphan freed of familial obligation, has the greatest chance to break free of those shackles. And from that sadness, she becomes an “occupational observer of life” as a writer. Husson’s approach is steeped in that occupational observation, whether her camera lingers on vases or ink-filled words on a page. But Mothering Sunday also loses itself in those details, which gets in the way of its more elemental tale of the way our experiences shape our understanding of the world.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release Mothering Sunday on November 19, 2021.
Photo courtesy of TIFF