There are few more tragically melancholy periods in British history than the inter-war years. From the colossal national trauma of World War 1 to inevitability of another horrifying decimation of the country’s youth on the horizon, it’s a piercingly sad moment in time by default, and it’s in this sadness that Mothering Sunday makes its home, a drama that mostly concerns itself with how we tell stories to cope with tragedies both collective and personal.
Constantly shifting through time, Mothering Sunday starts in 1924, with a group of aristocratic families meeting for a Mother’s Day lunch in Henley, Oxfordshire, while giving their live-in staff the traditional day off. Though big names like Olivia Colman and Colin Firth make up the poshos, it’s actually in the staff that we find our orphan heroine, maid and avid reader Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), who is in the midst of a passionate affair with the upper crust Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor).
Paul is meant to be at the Henley lunch to spend time with his family and bride-to-be Emma (Emma D’Arcy) – who he has to marry due to the death in the war of her original fiancée, one of Paul’s brothers – but can’t tear himself away from Jane. The pair have a white-hot chemistry, and director Eva Husson does a great job with the sex scenes, explicit and frank without feeling gratuitous as the couple lose themselves in one another. Their moments together are intimate and involving, though frequently interrupted by time shifts as we move forward into Jane’s future as an author, happily married to academic philosopher Donald (Sope Dirisu).
These flashforwards do give the important context that what we’re seeing in 1924 is Jane’s latter recollection of events rather than an objective ‘reality’, but their frequency makes them eventually feel like self-imposed speedbumps, not allowing any one moment to make enough of an impression. There is a general sense of over-direction elsewhere too, Husson’s use of blurs sometimes making it feel like you’re watching some scenes underwater. It’s certainly more coherent than her last film, Girls of the Sun, but I found myself wishing for a steadier stylistic hand to match the casually excellent dialogue and performances.
Alice Birch’s screenplay, adapting the short novel by Graham Swift, is very astute on the way people talk around tragedy, soft jokes and small talk obscuring the devastation felt by all the families at lunch. Paul is the only surviving son of three – too young to join his brothers at war – while Colman and Firth’s couple, the Nivens, have been hollowed out by the loss of both their sons. O’Connor, Colman, and Firth all play this bereavement – not to mention survivor’s guilt on Paul’s part – superbly, while Young impresses as an empathetic observer who has to tamp down her own feelings out of respect for her employers.
If it were just tied together a little better, Mothering Sunday would be a truly excellent film. As it is, its individual elements don’t quite cohere enough to reach those heights, but they are still compelling on their own, an insightful, well-acted, and really very sexy examination of creative lives and how we can still love in times of grief.