As a fan of period dramas, especially those filled with an ensemble of British actors, Mothering Sunday seems to have everything going for it. Based on the novel by Graham Swift and adapted by Alice Birch, the film centers on Jane Fairchild, a maid at the Nivens household. Jane is given a day off by her boss Mr. Niven to spend the Mothering Sunday holiday as she likes.
Well, what the Nivens don’t know is that Jane has been having a secret sexual relationship for years with their wealthy neighbor, Paul Sheringham. So while his own parents are having lunch with the Nivens and other family friends, the Hobdays, Paul and Jane consummate their affair. Paul is now set to marry the Hobdays’ daughter Emma, a woman in his social circle who was supposed to marry Paul’s brother who died in WWI.
The one thing Mothering Sunday is unlike most British period dramas is the amount of graphic nudity displayed in the film. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised given it’s got a French filmmaker at the helm, as the French are much less shy when it comes to naked bodies and sexuality. This is Eva Husson’s first English language film. I’m not familiar w/ her work but her 2018 film Girls of the Sun was nominated for Palme d’Or. That explains the involvement of major British stars like Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, and Josh O’Connor, though they have limited screen time in the film.
The protagonist Jane is played by Australian actress Odessa Young, who along with O’Connor spends plenty of time in the buff. Young especially, spends perhaps more time naked than she is clothed in this movie. There’s an extended scene of her wandering through the Sheringham’s house without a single thread on her.
I don’t have issues with nudity when it serves the film, and it seems the film is staying true to the novel in its depiction of the affair. I have to say though, the sexuality and nudity can seem gratuitous to the point that it distracts from the story being told. It’s especially notable when there’s a lack of character development and emotional resonance. I find it hard to relate to any of the characters, and the love affair between Paul and Jane lacks real sizzle and passion despite the graphic sex scenes shown between them. It proves that graphic sexuality doesn’t guarantee breathtaking passion… I think the scene of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth ‘almost kiss in the rain’ in 2005 Pride & Prejudice is more sexually charged despite both of them being fully clothed.
The performances are fine overall. I love Josh O’Connor in The Crown and even in the filmed stage adaptation of Romeo & Juliet with Jessie Buckley, but he’s not as enchanting here, though perhaps it’s more due to the way his character is written. I’m not as impressed with Odessa Young either, though to be fair, I need to see more of her work. As for Colman and Firth, neither is on screen enough to really make an impression, which is such a shame.
I find the second half of Jane’s story later in her life more intriguing. It’s clear even when she was a maid that she’s meant for more than life in service. She has become a writer and marries a philosopher Donald whom she meets while working at a book shop. I appreciate the inclusive casting choice of British-Nigerian Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù as Donald, though there’s also a lack of real passion between the two. I wonder if it’s due to Odessa’s stolid expression from start to finish.
The film deals with love and loss, not just in regard to the relationships in Jane’s life but also that the Nivens has also suffered the loss of their children during the war. Apart from one scene between Jane and Mrs. Niven (Olivia Colman), the war is barely mentioned in the movie. After watching the film, I was curious enough to read more about what the story is all about. I’m actually intrigued to read the novel as the story is quite intriguing, but the film adaptation left me wanting.
I do appreciate that the story is more than about an illicit romance and people marrying those they don’t love, a common trope in costume dramas set a hundred years ago. Husson’s direction, lensed by Jamie Ramsay, is beautiful to look at, but I wish it were more affecting. Drenched in melancholy, the few poignant moments are only a few and far in between. Now, I am used to seeing slow-burn drama, in fact, some of my favorite films fit in that category. But there is a measured and reflective type of slowness and there’s sluggish and plodding, and I’m afraid this one belongs in the latter category. I really wanted to love this one, but despite the fantastic cast, there’s not much to recommend it.
Have you seen Mothering Sunday? What did YOU think?