Eva Huson’s steamy and feminist Mothering Sunday is an epic multi-chapter drama that begins in post-World War I England, in a lush and lavish rural enclave where well-to-do upper crusty families are suffering traumatic grief from the deaths of their sons in the war to end all wars. The multifaceted drama focuses its lens on the British class system, particularly on the ways in which women of all classes are expected to keep a stiff upper lip, denying their personal ambitions and repressing their grief.
Adapted by Alice Birch from Graham Swift’s eponymous novella, the nonlinear script is replete with revealing flash backs and forwards, but always centers on Jane Fairchild (a fetching Odessa Young), whose story arc spans several decades divided into three distinct phases of her life. Jane starts her career as a well-mannered house maid who grew up in an orphanage and is in service to a well-to-do couple (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman) who are grieving the death of their sons in the war. Jane is drawn to literature and has a keen observational eye — and her observations are brilliantly reflected in the exceptionally detailed camerawork of cinematographer Jamie Ramsay.
Young Jane is passionately in love and is engaged in a very tender and strictly secret affair with a neighboring family’s son, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor). Having survived the war, Paul is class-trapped by his family into an engagement to a women he doesn’t love. On her day off, Jane rushes to meet Paul in his posh bedroom for a steamy final tryst that leaves no question about the passion they feel for each other. No spoilers, but after their illicit affair has a tragic end, Jane leaps forward into the next chapter in her life (and the movie).
Jane gives notice and leaves her job as a house maid to start working as a salesclerk in a book shop. The new position is ideal for her. She’s an aspiring writer and when the shop owner gives her a typewriter, she transforms her scribbled notes into a manuscript, and she soon sells her work to a publisher and becomes quite a successful author.
She also finds happiness with a new lover, a philosopher who adores her and supports her work. Again, no spoilers, but bliss again eludes Jane and she is left bereft. Writing, however, sustains her and eventually — in the final chapter of her life (and the movie), after she (now played by Glenda Jackson) has won numerous literary prizes, she reflects on her life’s trajectory and is at peace with herself.
Mothering Sunday is sufficiently replete with intriguing plot complications that will keep you engaged and entertained. It might seem a bit soapy, were it not for the authenticity of its concerns, as well as its profoundly well-written and beautifully performed characters. The film is a very welcome invitation to finely crafted, socially conscious escapism.