“Mothering Sunday” is a somber, sad tale of the gutting emptiness of loss, the unspoken-of absences of everyone who died in The Great War as remembered by an adult writer who saw this all first hand during her years “in service,” as a maid for Britain’s aristocratic rich.
Based on a novel by Graham Swift, Eva Husson’s film is equal parts writerly and painterly, with lovely visual compositions and exquisite light, decor and costuming complementing the observations and musings of its protagonist, the symbolically-named Jane Fairchild.
In that role, Odessa Young (“Assassination Nation”) is forced to on a clinic in the art of acting while nude. It’s a performance with the unselfconsciousness of one’s beautiful youth. And if the film’s too quiet and melodramatic to surprise, she at least tries to give it soulful heart that almost lets it transcend its notoriety.
Fittingly, Husson (“Girls of the Sun”) lets us see the elderly Jane, now celebrated for a novel that came from these experiences. And she’s played by the Oscar-winning legend Glenda Jackson, whose early career included a 1960s film of similar ambition and sexually nude notoriety — “Women in Love.”
Jane the maid and the cook at Beechcroft House (Patsy Ferran) are to have this “Mothering Sunday,” a church holiday conflated with the later American Mother’s Day, off. The mere name of the fourth Sunday in Lent celebration of one’s “mother church” (where one was baptized) is triggering for parents of all classes all across Britain.
It’s 1924, and every family has felt loss, none more than the Nivens. The absences at their dinner table has turned Mr. Niven (Colin Firth) into a purveyor of empty platitudes about a picnic where “We Nivens shall assemble” for an engagement announcement. “Nice to have a little joy” in their lives, he opines.
His sour, embittered wife (Olivia Colman) is having none of it. She seldom speaks and her gestures are confined to pained looks when she isn’t summoning up the cutting remarks she reserves for public chastisements of her husband’s inane, stiff-upper-lip optimism.
Jane wonders if at this gathering they’ll “tell each other the truth” and speak of those missing. But this day, Jane is off, free to “do as you please,” as Mr. Niven notes, wistfully. “Imagine that, ‘Do as you please.'”
And that means a visit to her paramour, the upper class lover (Josh O’Connor) who is the surviving scion of a nearby family, almost all alone in a great house whose elders have passed, along with siblings Paul lost in the war.
Paul is studying law and facing a marriage of almost feudal origins in its arrangements. He will wed the young woman (Emma D’Arcy) intended for his older brother. He is as resigned to this as the reckless, flapper-in-the-making Emma Hobday, who embodies the “Jazz Age” hedonism born of the mass death that shocked and created a “Lost Generation” of the dead and those hellbent on cheating death.
During their midday assignation, Jane and Paul talk of books and his predicament, leaving out the war deaths that shape it. And they have sex and dwell on the symbolism of “seed” that he can’t allow to be “planted,” and on the messy clean-up that most movies tastefully leave out of the experience.
“Mothering Sunday” skips back and forth through four timelines — a 1924 “present,” the recent (1918) past that brought Jane to Beechcroft House, a point some years in the future when she’s a bookstore clerk and aspiring writer living with a encouraging Black philosopher (Sope Dirisu), and in her dotage, when Jane is considering all her life and the many losses that intruded upon it and made her the writer she became.
The Oscar winners Colman — given one tasty “lashing out” moment, and a tender one — Firth and Jackson are the standouts in the cast, accomplishing much in just a few scenes each. D’Arcy has a few grace notes to play outside the anger Emma aims at the world and the lot in life she’s been given.
O’Connor is most interesting if you consider what his character represents — a bride-to-be’s second choice, what passes for “a catch” in a country that’s given up a generation of its young men to a pointless war.
Young is entirely too passive in the lead. Yes, Jane must keep to her “place,” hide her emotions as the Pink Floyd song suggests, “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” But there’s little to hang onto in this character and her performance of it.
The unaffected, unselfconscious curiosity Young has to play as a nude Jane ponders the bodily fluids of intercourse and wanders the halls, portrait gallery and library of Paul’s empty house after he finally departs for his own engagement picnic is both impressive and devoid of emotion.
If a male director had pushed for such naked longueurs, there’d be “exploitation” scolding hanging over it, I dare say. Whatever it speaks of in character terms, it seems more showy and attention-grabbing here.
Still, one can’t help but envy actors and actresses (equal opportunity nudity here) who can perform such moments with some aplomb.
Whatever “Mothering Sunday” lacks in emotional payoffs, it’s the shattered tone that Husson gets across that makes it work. Few films have done as well at capturing the disorienting, utterly-deflating feeling of a grief everyone involved realizes they will never, ever get over, so there’s no sense even trying to talk about it.
As if anything could make it worse.
Rating: R, explicit sex, nudity, some profanity, smoking
Cast: Odessa Young, Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, Josh O’Connor, Patsy Ferran, Emma D’Arcy and Glenda Jackson.
Credits: Directed by Eva Husson, script by Alice Birch, based on the novel by Graham Swift. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:44