While the 1920s conjure a certain image in one’s mind, complete with flowing champagne and bobbed hair, Eva Husson’s adaptation of Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday leans more into the somber wake of World War I that has ravaged the families of the quaint picturesque countryside of Berkshire. Even then, the oft-times sumptuous Mothering Sunday breaks all of the expected norms when it comes to a British period drama. But is it for the best?
Mothering Sunday is a Sexy, Albeit Aimless Period Piece
Mothering Sunday opens on March 30, 1924, on the day its title is derived from. Mothering Sunday, which would later be known as Mother’s Day, has become a somber occasion for the trio of bereaved families the film centers on, but for its orphaned lead, it’s simply a day off.
Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) works as a maid for the Nivens family (Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman) who lost both of their sons in the war. She befriends the son of their next-door neighbours, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), who is engaged to the daughter of another family friend. On a lark, Jane and Paul find themselves caught up in a torrid love affair — drawn to one another for inexplicable reasons. Their romance is not exceedingly steamy, despite the sheer amount of nudity and copulation that occurs on Jane’s day off.
O’Connor is woefully underutilized as Paul, though entirely exposed. As their romance blossoms, there are brief interludes where he reflects on his childhood and his brothers who died. It is clear that he suffers from some level of survivor’s guilt, but these rich character moments are overshadowed by attempts at creating something the film never fully achieves. It ambles quite a bit, leaning heavily on its gorgeous cinematography to make up for the lack of character exploration in the script.
There are moments within Mothering Sunday where it feels as though Husson wanted to make a statement about female sexuality and Jane’s transition from an innocent orphan to a fully actualized woman, but it often gets lost in translation. It tries to be artful in its execution, but it ends up being uncomfortably gratuitous. Perhaps, simply because it’s at odds with what one expects from a historical film.
The joy that Jane experiences on this particular Mothering Sunday is undercut but a tragedy that alters the course of her life. Throughout the film, we see glimpses into Jane’s future — both in her life after leaving the Nivens’ household and when she is near to the end of her own life. These scenes are shaped into frustrating flashbacks-within-flashbacks that oftentimes feel at odds with the intimate nature of the rest of the story.
There is a lot of potential interwoven through the moments that fall flat in Mothering Sunday. With a cast composed of Firth, Coleman, and O’Connor, you come to expect something more, something that just isn’t there in the film. It excels at being a beautifully conceived period piece, lush with haunting post-war emotions, stunning costuming, and production design; but it otherwise disappoints.
On paper, Mothering Sunday should work. Husson is a talented director who has done an exceptional job capturing the aesthetics of the film, the cast list is comprised of some of the best performers of the era, and yet I fear it will leave audiences unfulfilled when the credits roll.
Mothering Sunday premiered at Cannes Film Festival and is currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. It arrives in theaters on November 19, 2021.
There is a lot of potential interwoven through the moments that fall flat in Mothering Sunday.