Mother’s Day, 1924. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is a maid in the rural English home of Mr. and Mrs. Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), and she’s been given the Sunday off work. The Nivens are off to have lunch with their friends and neighbors, the Hobdays and the Sheringhams, the latter family having also given all their servants the holiday off. This presents a rare opportunity for the young woman who has spent the majority of her life serving others: Jane hops on her bike and cycles to the Sheringhams’ home so she can spent the day undisturbed with their son Paul (Josh O’Connor), her secret lover of several years.
Directed by Eva Husson from a screenplay by Alice Birth based on Graham Swift’s 2016 novella of the same name, “Mothering Sunday” plays with the relationships between the upper and lower classes in a way that likely won’t be wholly unfamiliar to fans of period pieces. Paul is the sole surviving son of a wealthy family, engaged to the Hobdays’ daughter Emma (Emma D’Arcy, very effective in her few scenes as a woman committed to a marriage she isn’t particularly thrilled about); Jane is an orphan and a servant. As much as they love each other, they are forever divided by class and social expectations. But “Mothering Sunday” is less about the love story between Paul and Jane, and more about how the events of that Sunday ripple over the course of Jane’s life, and shape her into the woman she ultimately becomes. “Mothering Sunday” adopts a non-linear structure to tell this story, jumping between that day in 1924, Jane in the 1940s, and, briefly, Jane as an old woman in the 1980s (where she is portrayed by the great Glenda Jackson). When we see her in 1924, Jane is an aspiring writer. In the 1940s, she is no longer a maid, instead working in a bookstore, where she meets her new lover, philosopher Donald (Sope Dirisu), who encourages her writing. In the 1980s, she is an acclaimed writer, who has apparently won so many awards she has adopted a complacent reaction to them. It’s in these later timelines that Birch’s script most diverges from Swift’s original piece, expanding on characters and events that are merely mentioned in the latter and drawing some parallels between Jane in the 1920s and 1940s. Donald is a Black man, and it’s easy to see how his relationship with Jane could also be considered forbidden for different reasons, even though the film doesn’t explicitly go there (and Dirisu is very well cast as someone who is both affectionate and can meet Jane on the same intellectual plane). Moreover, Jane experiences tragedy in both timelines, carrying the grief from those events throughout the rest of her life and career. Young’s thoughtful performance expresses all of Jane’s pain and curiosity and intelligence, even in scenes where there is no dialogue, while technical touches in the cinematography, costuming, and production design help distinguish between the timelines.
While “Mothering Sunday” is primarily told from Jane’s perspective, it encompasses other characters in its portrayal of grief, particularly in the aftermath of World War I, where this small town in particular lost many of its young men (at one point, Jane rides by a memorial to them, piled high with flowers). This is especially evident in Colman’s performance. While she only appears in a couple of scenes, Colman—playing a woman whose children all died in the war, having to celebrate Mother’s Day as a mother with no living offspring—lets her anger and sadness simmer until it suddenly bursts forth; she’s a woman who has everything material but lost everything that really matters, although her ignorance to others’ perspectives comes through when she tells Jane that she is fortunate to be immune to grief because she experienced the great loss of her parents at such a young age.
But despite being centered around such heightened emotions, and featuring a more than capable cast, “Mothering Sunday” frequently feels cold to the touch. Outside of that aforementioned moment with Colman, there’s no real intensity; everyone otherwise keeps their emotions bottled up, including Jane, who chooses to carry a certain secret with her for the rest of her life. So much time in the first half of the film—time that borders on turning tedious—is spent building up to the tragedy that its protagonist’s life turns on, but the aftermath is more understood rather than felt.
“Mothering Sunday” is beautifully designed, and the Sheringhams’ home in particular is filled with details that make it feel like real people have lived their lives there. This is especially important for a scene that takes place about mid-way through the movie. Jane and Paul spend most of their day in bed together (and the film doesn’t shy away from including copious amounts of nudity that make their scenes feel more intimate even when their interactions behind closed doors still contain an air of restraint). After Paul leaves to join his parents for lunch, Jane wanders around his empty home, naked, her porcelain skin and long, soft curls lending her the appearance of the subject of a classical painting, not unlike the ones that adorn the lavish mansion. She idly explores Paul’s closet, sniffing his clothes, walks downstairs, makes herself a snack in the kitchen, sits down in the office, and lingers in the library with its walls of books, another strong indication of her interest in literature. It’s not only a rare moment that Jane has solely to herself, but also allows her a glimpse into how the other half lives. I enjoy those slow scenes that allow characters to breathe for a while, and I liked the quiet sensuality that Husson imbued “Mothering Sunday” with. But an overabundance of restraint prevents the film from fully reaching and resonating with the audience.
“Mothering Sunday” opens in theaters and New York and Los Angeles March 25, and will expand to theaters nationwide in the following weeks. Runtime: 104 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.