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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

A sensual, time-splintered adaptation of Graham Swift’s acclaimed 2016 novella, French director Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday is certainly not the BBC Sunday night TV comfort viewing version one might have feared. It’s a bold casting off of the aesthetic corset that so often renders heritage dramas tasteful yet sedate. However, the film’s freestyling liberation – an embodiment of its main character’s creative rebirth, which is developed alongside the narrative’s central tragedy – eventually throws up its own set of problems.

The story centres on Jane (Odessa Young), an intelligent young maid working for the Niven family on a Berkshire country estate, and her secret affair with Paul (Josh O’Connor), the son of their neighbours, the Sheringhams. It’s 1924 and between both families four sons have been lost to the Great War, emotionally crippling “the tribes”, as they call themselves, in a glazed, unspoken despair. The sole saving grace is Paul’s impending, dutiful marriage to Emma, daughter of the Hobdays (a third family clan), a thin ray of imminent hope. But the titular day, upon which Jane and Paul’s final meeting occurs, will instead wreak more devastation. 

Jane is an orphan and hence, according to the emotionally ravaged Lady Niven (Olivia Colman), “comprehensively bereaved at birth”, with nothing left to lose. She is then advised to use this ‘gift’ as a survival technique, armour against future heartbreak. As much as Mothering Sunday is suffused with loss, it’s even more about Jane’s awakening, and her coming alive as a writer. Her books become her very own offspring and salvation.

Jane (Odessa Young, left) speaking to Mr. Niven (Colin Firth, right) in Mothering Sunday (2021)

The lineage of Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75), Gosford Park (2001) and Downton Abbey (2010-15) has long shown how the landed gentry’s staff see far more than their lords and ladies would perhaps wish. Husson and screenwriter Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth, 2016; Normal People, 2020) make even more explicit Jane’s position as an “optimal observer of life”. Thrilling – and erotically charged – as her trysts with Paul are, Jane appears to get equal gratification in imagining and crafting an alternative ‘what if’ discovery of their affair. 

Young and O’Connor do fine work conveying the intoxicating, forbidden nature of their passion, tinged with matter-of-fact acknowledgement that a long-term union is impossible. There’s copious, even full-frontal, nudity, but whereas the explicit teen lust scenes in Husson’s 2015 debut feature Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story, looked, frankly, calculated for shock effect, the hunger here, both carnal and for experience itself, feels entirely fitting. Once Paul has left one rendezvous, Jane, naked, explores the Sheringham’s grand home with impunity. The image of a servant girl at her most vulnerable yet powerful, sampling food, books, photographs, is truly transgressive. It’s the seed for Jane’s writing, an act of claiming, of authorship. 

Such bold choices abound. Husson and South African cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay linger close on small, telling details: a wisp of hair, the broken spine of much-read hardback, sex-stained bedsheets. The shellshocked tribe are regularly portrayed at outdoor social gatherings or dinner parties in slow motion and with no dialogue, revealing the forced, performative bonhomie they enact to stave off grief. And Morgan Kibby’s score rings subtle changes throughout, from dissonant strings to a cascading piano motif that deftly blends into unexpected synths. 

Sope Dirisu as Donald and Odessa Young as Jane in Mothering Sunday (2021)

The heart of the film pulses most persuasively in its main post-war setting. So powerful are these sections and so well acted by all concerned – as the Nivens, Colman and Colin Firth can convey years of stoic heartbreak with a mere glance or gesture – that it rather shows up the flaws in the film’s ambitious flash-back-and-forward structure. Where some transitions flow elegantly across the decades, other inserts – jarring close-ups on typewritten words, for example – seem clunky. 

Birch has enlarged a brief section in the novella accounting for the 40-something Jane’s subsequent relationship with philosopher Donald (a charismatic Sope Dirisu) but these scenes are slight in comparison to Paul’s impact upon her. Even sketchier is a very brief Glenda Jackson appearance, playing Jane as the spiky grande dame novelist she eventually becomes. Other than the welcome sight of Jackson back onscreen, it adds little but a comparison to Vanessa Redgrave’s late-breaking Atonement (2007) role, an altogether more impactful cameo as a literary alter ego shaped by wartime experiences.

If these later sections dissipate the film’s overall thrust, there’s still much to admire. L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, another historical romantic elegy, famously claimed the past as a foreign country. When so many period adaptations refute this with unadventurous, cinematically domesticated depictions of Englishness, Mothering Sunday points a way to a future where filmmakers can go back to much-visited times and dare to do things differently.

Further reading

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By Christina Newland

Girls of the Sun first look: Eva Husson's Kurdish war drama drills home female victimhood

Downton Abbey review: on the big screen, the Crawleys serve trifle for our present nerves

By Kate Stables

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Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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