Mothering Sunday (United Kingdom/Germany, 2021)

March 23, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mothering Sunday Poster

Something went wrong (or got lost) in the translation of Graham Swift’s novella to the movie adaptation, directed by Eva Husson from a screenplay by Alice Birch. There’s no debating that the finished product looks gorgeous, with all credit due to Husson and her cinematographer, Jamie Ramsay. And the performances, especially the sexy, confident one turned in by lead actress Odessa Young (who spends perhaps as much as a quarter of her screen time naked), are top-notch. Unfortunately, the narrative isn’t on par with the visuals and acting. The seemingly straightforward melodrama, set primarily in 1924, is conflated with flash-forwards set years (and, on at least one occasion, many decades) later to create a confusing mélange of past, present, and future. There are powerful elements at work but the filmmakers’ approach neuters them.

The main story – the only one that matters – transpires during the course of a single day, 1924’s Mothering Day (the precursor of the modern era’s Mother’s Day). It focuses on three families: the Nivens, Godfrey and Clarrie (played by Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), who are childless as a result of the War; the Sheringhams, whose lone surviving son, Paul (Josh O’Connor), has inherited high expectations and a fiancée from his deceased brother; and the Hobdays, whose daughter, Emma (Emma D’Arcy), is engaged to Paul. The tale is presented through the eyes of the Nivens’ maid, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), who is entangled in a torrid love affair with Paul – an affair whose end is at hand due to his impending wedding. The decade’s reputation for hedonistic sexual exploration notwithstanding, Paul intends to begin his marriage with at least an attempt at fidelity.

While the Nivens, the Sheringhams, and the Hobdays are gathered for a picnic, Paul and Jane are cloistered in his bedroom, enjoying their final fling. When Paul departs, already scandalously late for the picnic, Jane remains behind, wandering naked through the empty mansion until the arrival of the Sheringhams’ maid compels her to dress and sneak out. Meanwhile, at the picnic, it’s a struggle for the participants to find “safe” conversations that don’t disturb the many ghosts hovering around the table.

If there’s one area in which Mothering Sunday succeeds, it’s expressing the abiding sorrow that existed in England even a half-decade after the end of the Great War. The U.K. lost nearly three-quarters of a million lives to the conflict, mostly young men (by contrast, the United States, which didn’t enter until late in the proceedings, suffered about 100,000 fatalities). This created a deep, lasting scar that impacted countless families where brothers, sons, and/or fathers left absent chairs at dinners. Mothering Sunday expresses this better than most films set in the era and offers a reminder that, for those who experienced a death in the family, the grief and pain didn’t magically fade in a year or two. Five-plus years after signing the armistice, England was still in the grip of a countrywide malaise. Paul and Emma are getting married not because they love one another but out of a (misplaced?) sense of obligation to Paul’s dead older brother, who was engaged to Emma.

The romance is rather pedestrian. There’s nothing about it that couldn’t have been found in any melodrama set in the early 20th century. As a means to spice things up, director Husson includes copious amounts of nudity with Odessa Young and Josh O’Connor going full-frontal. Most of the nudity occurs not during sex but in the aftermath with the couples comfortably unclothed as they lounge in bed or wander around the room. After Paul’s departure, Jane’s extended nude tour of the house is intended to express her embrace of a fleeting moment of freedom – something rarely accorded to someone of her social status.

With the most screen time and the best-developed character, Young (an Australian-born actress who has thus far lacked a breakthrough mainstream performance) is given an opportunity to shine and she doesn’t waste it. Jane is a relatable woman who shows emotional strength and vulnerability and expresses love, passion, and grief. In supporting roles, Colin Firth and Olivia Colman bring what one might reasonably expect from actors of their pedigree – a deep wellspring of pain thinly covered by politeness, an adherence to routine, and an unwillingness to express anything resembling an emotion. Firth’s Godfrey tries to go about life as it once was while always aware that everything has changed. Colman’s Clarrie has shut down – her face is often a mask of impassivity – until a comment causes the façade to crumble.

The filmmakers’ decision to craft a chronologically tortured narrative by jumping around in time throughout the 20th century results in a disjointed end product. The “future scenes” that show what happens to Jane in the years to come (she eventually becomes a famous author) add little to the production and the most distant glimpses seem designed primarily to offer veteran actress Glenda Jackson (who came out of retirement for this) an opportunity for a cameo. Beautifully filmed and emotionally on-target when confined to 1924, Mothering Sunday loses its way once unmoored in time and left adrift on the currents of the years to come.

Mothering Sunday (United Kingdom/Germany, 2021)

Director: Eva Husson
Cast: Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, Glenda Jackson, Emma, Sope Dirisu
Home Release Date: 2022-06-28
Screenplay: Alice Birch, based on the novel by Graham Swift
Cinematography: Jamie Ramsay
Music: Morgan Kibby
U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2022-03-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1