Based on the same-named novel by Graham Swift, director Eva Husson’s lush, languid drama Mothering Sunday feels in some ways like the cinematic equivalent of reading another English writer’s work. Introspective, melancholy, and finely observed, it’s reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse in the way it hones its focus on a very specific set of events and the way those events affect the people at the center of them.
Here, those people are Jane (Odessa Young) — a young Englishwoman who’s worked in service since leaving the orphanage she grew up in — and two intertwined upper class families quietly but inescapably devastated by the losses of World War I. Jane works for the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), whose two sons both died in the war, and she’s having a clandestine affair with Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), whose family is close to the Nivens and also sacrificed two boys to the cause. Paul and Jane’s time together is coming to a close due to his impending marriage to Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy). But before he leaves for a Niven-Sheringham family lunch, the lovers enjoy a sensual tryst on the beautiful spring day that marks England’s annual Mothering Sunday, a day traditionally set aside for servants to spend with their mothers.
After Paul leaves, Jane wanders naked through the Sheringhams’ stately home, taking the opportunity of being alone in the house to really absorb what it’s like to be there, to be a Sheringham. As the events of the rest of day play out, the movie jumps back and forth in time, revealing Jane’s eventual future as a writer — and her relationship with philosopher Donald (Sope Dirisu). All the while, Mothering Sunday explores the nature and impact of loss, the way that grief shapes people and the way they interact with each other.
Husson, working from a script adapted from Swift’s book by Alice Birch, elicits strong performances from the cast. Young’s Jane can be both enigmatic and expressive, a woman whose life experiences have taught her how to protect herself but who’s also aching to let herself be vulnerable. Cinematographer Jamie Ramsay bathes her in beautiful light in the long scenes she spends nude; she’s almost like a pre-Raphaelite painting come to life. Firth and Colman are excellent at playing stiff-upper-lip Brits whose pain is thrust down just below the surface, threatening to break out and wreak havoc on their well-ordered lives. And as the men in Jane’s life, O’Connor and Dirisu are both suitably romantic figures. But it is Jane to whom the story belongs, and Husson makes sure that audiences understand and appreciate that. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand Mothering Sunday, a holiday throughout the British Isles and the Commonwealth that celebrates mothers of all types, is the momentous day in the life of Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) that marked her emergence as a writer. It is on that day that Jane experienced the first deep loss of her young life, finally sharing in bottomless grief of the two upper-middle-class English families with whom she is entwined—the Sheringhams and the Nivens—following the cataclysm of World War I. Director Eva Husson and screenwriter Alice Birch, adapting the novella Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, do a good job of manufacturing the pall that hung heavily over Britain in the wake of the slaughter of the Great War. Colin Firth and Olivia Colman display their customary splendid talent as Godfrey and Clarrie Niven, the hollowed-out couple who have lost all three of their sons. The film, which moves swiftly but never incoherently through decades of Jane’s life, rests firmly on the shoulders of Young, who embodies the careful observation and boldness that make her an ideal writer, who, in old age (played by Glenda Jackson), has won every literary award there is. The film gets off to a slow start, but once it warms to its story, Mothering Sunday is an absorbing experience.
Sherin Nicole Mothering Sunday is a stream of consciousness exploration of memory and the awakening of the artistic self. Timelines roll by, connected only by a thread of Sundays that push our lead, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), into becoming the writer she wishes to be. Much like our own memories, the film isn’t concerned with how it ends but rather how it got there. In that way, it is best experienced for its beauty, drenched in the hues of the English countryside, and for its sensuality, which is unabashed.
Pam Grady: A writer carries the bittersweet memory of a single afternoon throughout her life, a pivotal moment that, in retrospect, set the path toward her career in Eva Husson’s evocative adaptation of Graham Swift’s award-winning novel. Odessa Young is riveting as Jane, a maid who enjoys a final tryst with well-born Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor) while his fiancée and parents attend a Mothering Sunday picnic. The couple’s erotic connection makes a mark contrast with the mood at the celebration where the Sheringhams and Jane’s employers, the Nivens, mourn sons lost during World War I. Colin Firth and Olivia Colman are poignant as the Nivens, a couple left shell-shocked by their endless grief. Lush cinematography emphasizes the gorgeous, young lovers’ naked carnality, as well as the pastoral beauty of the English countryside. Glenda Jackson adds a sardonic cameo as elderly Jane in a drama that weaves twists through Jane’s life, returning over and over again to that one indelible day.
Susan Wloszczyna: Mourning and grief collide with steamy sexuality in the British film Mothering Sunday, a costume drama set in 1924 soon after World War I. The romance in question is an Upstairs, Downstairs situation between a fetching orphaned maid named Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) and the surviving son of a well-off family. She works for the upper-class Niven clan and has been carrying on a secret affair for years with Paul Sheringham, the lone surviving son of a near-by clan (the Emmy-winning Josh O’Conner aka the young Prince Phillip on the TV series The Crown). Read full review.
Leslie Combemale Part Bridgerton, part Downton Abbey, Eva Husson’s steamy take on the prize-winning novella is equally lush and bleak, with sex aplenty and lots of nakedness, which is used both symbolically and literally by both lead characters. I loved the commentary on class and the insightful representation of grief and survivor guilt. It can, at times, be a supreme bummer, but even at its saddest, it’s still beautifully shot and performed. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin 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. Read full review.
Loren King Mothering Sunday is a class-crossed romance set in England in 1924 as the nation reels from the devastation of the Great War. Based on the novel by Graham Swift and directed by Eva Husson (Girls of the Sun), the film layers grief and despair with youthful passion, all centered on one life-altering Sunday. Two upper crust families who lost sons in the war, the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman, both superb) and the Sheringhams (Craig Crosbie and Emily Woof), put on brave faces for a scheduled mother’s day picnic. Meanwhile, the Sheringham’s sole surviving son Paul (Josh O’Connor, known for playing another scion of privilege, Prince Charles in The Crown) is engaged in a secret romance with the Nivens’ orphaned housemaid Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young). The lovers’ furtive rendezvous unfolds leisurely, with hazy nudity for both characters, refreshingly, as nakedness reveals their risk and vulnerability. Forever changed by that fateful afternoon, Jane blossoms into a writer and evolves into crusty, cardigan-wearing Glenda Jackson. It’s the one cliche that befalls an otherwise lyrical and haunting film. Jamie Ramsay’s sun dappled photography makes poetry out of simple but evocative images, such as billowing bedsheets. That beauty is countered by heartbreaking characters who cannot escape the depths of grief.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Eva Husson’s film Mothering Sunday, based on an award-winning British author Graham Swift’s same-titled novella, is a leisurely paced character study of class, love, and melancholy in post-World War I England. Starring Australian actor Odessa Young as Jane Fairchild, an orphaned maid who’s secretly having an affair with Paul (Josh O’Connor) the aristocratic young neighbor of her wealthy bosses the Nivens (played by Colin Firth and Olivia Colman, both exuding a state of constant sadness and despair, respectively). Jane and Paul, both in their twenties, have been sleeping together for years, but on the Mothering Sunday of 1924 (Mothering Sunday was the fourth Sunday in Lent when everyone, including servants were given the day off to visit their mothers and worship in their hometown churches), it’s clear this will be their last tryst, since Paul is marrying another neighbor’s daughter out of a sense of obligation, rather than for love. The plot plays with time, including flashbacks and flash forwards to younger and older Janes (she eventually becomes a writer), but it’s that fateful Mothering Day that’s the focus of the story. The actors are all fabulously restrained in their grief and longing, and it’s the kind of film, like many English period pieces, that requires reading between the lines and examining facial expressions. The drama, adapted for the screen by screenwriter Alice Birch, is quiet, sensual, and memorable.
Liz Whittemore A marriage of convenience proves inconvenient when Paul, a son of society, and Jane, a maid, fall in love against the rules of 1920s England. The tragic reality of postwar times, sons lost and promising futures destroyed, prominent families fake smile through another lunch together keeping up appearances. But, death and suffering are inescapable. Mothering Sunday is a story of love and loss through the decades, a meditation on grief and the choice to thrive. It is one of the best films of the year. Read full review.
Cate Marquis Eva Huson’s Mothering Sunday looks at first glance like a steamy British period drama, with a maid, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young, and played by Glenda Jackson as the older Jane ), working in a manor house for an upper class couple, Godfrey and Clarrie Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman) but having an affair with the son (Josh O’Connor) of their friends. But that surface is misleading, as this brilliantly-crafted drama set at first not long after World War I but soon moving back and forth in time, develops into a femme-centric tale exploring issues ranging from the consequences of the loss of a generation of young men to war, societal shifts within a declining aristocratic system and the changing lives of women. Yet Mothering Sunday is also a personal drama about losses and fulfillment, that is further lifted by heartbreaking performances.
Title: Mothering Sunday
Directors: Eva Husson
Release Date: March 25, 2022
Running Time: 104 minutes
Screenwriter: Alice Birch, based on Graham Swift’s novel
Distribution Company: Sony Pictures Classics
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin