A British period drama steeped in tragedy
Mothering Sunday, an adaptation of Graham Swift’s 2016 novella, is a British period drama that is steeped in tragedy. It centres on Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), a young housemaid who works for stately couple Mr and Mrs Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman).
The majority of the film takes place on one day: 30th March 1924. This is Mothering Sunday, a day when maids are given the opportunity to have a day off and visit their mothers at home. As Jane was orphaned as a young girl, she doesn’t have a family home to visit but the kindly Mr Niven allows her to have the day to herself anyway.
Thankfully, Jane doesn’t have to be alone on this day as she has a secret lover, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), who is the only surviving son of a well-to-do family. His parents would be appalled if they knew of his affair with Jane as would his fiancee Emma (Emma D’Arcy), who seems to be completely unaware of his clandestine meetings with the lowly housemaid.
When Paul’s parents spend the day with Emma and the Nivens in Henley, he and Jane have the run of the Sheringham household. They spend a lot of time in bed having hot, steamy sex, and when they’re not intertwined within one another’s bodies, they wander around the house with no clothes on. It’s a good job the other servants aren’t around to witness their naked cavorting!
It would be no surprise to suggest that things do not end well for Jane and Paul. There is the sense that they make the most of their time together in fear that it might be their last. And as the film passes the midway point, something does happen to bring about the end of their hidden relationship. You might already know the outcome of their love affair if you are familiar with Swift’s novel but if not, there will be no spoilers here.
While the film mostly takes place in a 1920s setting, it occasionally jumps forward in time to give us an insight into Jane’s future. Her life is very different in these scenes – she is no longer a housemaid – but it’s clear that happiness is still eluding her. The story of Jane Fairchild is a tragic one and as such, the film is quite heavy. It’s not particularly sentimental. Director Eva Husson favours repressed emotions over tearful melodramatics. But it’s quietly sad all the same so you might still need a handkerchief as you watch Jane’s story unfold.
Much of the focus is on the secretive lovebirds but the film occasionally takes us to a lakeside picnic where the Nivens and the Sheringhams are patiently waiting for the arrival of Paul. Emma is there too, making sideways snipes about her fiancee and criticising the staff for daring to speak to her. As tragic as Jane’s life turns out to be, there is a deep sense of tragedy in these scenes too. Both sets of parents have lost children in the war and while Mr Niven and the Sheringhams distract themselves from the traumas they have experienced, Mrs Niven seems constantly on the verge of tears because of the terrible emotional pain she is experiencing.
As the Nivens, Colin Firth and Olivia Colman turn in excellent performances, both displaying their grief but in very different ways. They aren’t given a lot to do in the film but whenever they are on screen, they manage to do much, despite having very little to say. With actors of this calibre, you wouldn’t expect anything less, of course.
A lot of credit needs to go to Young and O’Connor too, who ably express the joys and frustrations of their respective characters. They fully commit to their roles, both in and out of the bedroom, and without the quality of their acting, this film would have been far less involving. The scene when Paul says goodbye to Jane for the last time is quietly heartbreaking, as is the scene when Jane has to stifle her emotions when she receives a piece of news that upends her already difficult existence.
As good as the acting is, the film is a little confusing at times. The time jumps are quite disorientating as are the scenes when the film transitions into events happening within the Niven household. They give the film an unstructured feel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it might be a problem if you’re looking for a straightforward telling of the narrative.
The ending of the film is quite unsatisfying too. Glenda Jackson stars as the older Jane and while it’s good to see her back on screen, we don’t get to spend that much time with her. As such, we don’t get to see who Jane became, beyond a surface level mention of a writing career. Did she find happiness? It’s hard to say although the final flashback scene of a young Jane looking at horses seems to be a metaphor for freedom, so perhaps she managed to find fulfilment, despite the tragedies that scarred her life.
Mothering Sunday isn’t quite the film it could have been. It’s mercifully not as staid as some British period dramas but it doesn’t pull on the heart as much as it should, despite the wonderful performances. It’s still worth a watch though but if you’re thinking about buying your mother or grandmother this as a gift for Mother’s Day, you might want to warn them about the extended scenes of nudity first!
Read More: Mothering Sunday Ending Explained
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Verdict - 6.5/10