Mothering Sunday


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Mothering Sunday
"The façade of a happy picnic shows all the cracks, despite the lovely geese flying overhead." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Much of the action takes place on one balmy Sunday in March of 1924 in Eva Husson’s grand Mothering Sunday (a highlight of the Cannes Film Festival), based on the 2016 novel by Graham Swift, with a screenplay by Alice Birch, costumes by three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell and a score by Morgan Kirby (Husson’s Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story and Girls Of The Sun). Orphaned Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) works as a maid at the sprawling English country estate owned by the Nivens, Godfrey (Colin Firth) and Clarrie (Olivia Colman, Oscar-nominated for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter). A picnic is planned, which doubles as a celebration of an engagement.

The Nivens meet their friends, the Sheringhams (Emily Woof and Craig Crosbie), whose son Paul (Josh O’Connor) is to marry Emma (Emma D'Arcy), daughter of Giles and Sylvia Hobday (Simon Shepherd and Caroline Harke). Jane and the other maid, Milly (Patsy Ferran) get the day off. The two girls set out on their bicycles, hair blowing in the wind, and while Milly visits her mother, Jane meets her lover, who is none other than Paul.

The events of this “gorgeous day,” as Firth’s Mr. Niven proclaims repeatedly as though to cast a rather urgent and expectedly unsuccessful spell, will have enormous consequences for all involved.

A central instant brings to mind Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. It is a study of time and slices newly found identity. Alone in the Sheringham’s lavish house after Paul leaves, Jane goes on a tour of discovery. When she touches her rich lover’s shirts, we encroach on The Great Gatsby territory, but unlike Daisy, her Fitzgerald counterpart, Jane isn’t entranced by the silks and satins. Odessa Young in this difficult scene displays the self-confidence of an emperor who with open eyes sees through the ruse and embraces the fact that there aren’t any clothes.

We encounter Jane later in life during numerous flash forwards. In the late 1940s she has become a writer, whose relationship with Donald (Sopé Dìrísù), an Oxford educated Black man, brings back memories of what made her write in the first place.

In the 1980s - Jane is now played by Glenda Jackson wearing the same ring - the highest professional merits still cannot compete with the self discoveries made so long ago, when the First World War and the unfathomable losses were still fresh.

The Sunday of the title is marked by the absence of all the sons and brothers who perished. Colin Firth in particular gives a portrayal of a man who holds it all in. He is the post-war, pre-war man whose curiosity about others’ lives can only go so far because so much pain has to be kept at bay behind the shield of all-in-control masculinity.

Olivia Coleman as the mother is allowed to make her suffering more obvious - to a degree. For women it is traditionally the anger that is forbidden to erupt. Details and objects function as charms. From the above mentioned ring, to glorious buttons and embroidered tops, and red underpants, Sandy Powell works her unique costume magic. In Husson’s cinematic universe, men are as physically and emotionally exposed as women are. Women marrying men because the one they were supposed to marry and wanted to marry died have been the fallout of wartime for centuries.

The façade of a happy picnic shows all the cracks, despite the lovely geese flying overhead. The idyllic setting and lush landscape cannot make up for how miserable they all are. A single orchid blossom, an owl, a typewriter where the letter P jams a little, a great coral teapot and dreamy flower arrangements - memories good and bad are captured in them. How very lucky is it really to have been “comprehensively bereaved at birth?” To have absolutely nothing to lose? The racing, almost flying horses from the very start will return again and the ringing phone is a sign of death.

A century can go by but something about youth remains the same. There are things that have not completely changed. One day, one decision can alter the direction of a life and cinema allows a look back to put the pieces together.

Sony Pictures Classics theatrical release of Mothering Sunday in the US is on Friday, March 25.

Reviewed on: 22 Mar 2022
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A maid living in post-World War I England secretly plans to meet with the man she loves before he leaves to marry another woman.

Director: Eva Husson

Writer: Alice Birch, based on the book by Graham Swift

Starring: Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Josh O'Connor, Odessa Young, Glenda Jackson, Sopé Dìrísù, Patsy Ferran, Emma D'Arcy, Simon Shepherd, Caroline Harke, Emily Woof, Craig Crosbie

Year: 2021

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: UK

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