When one imagines the British aristocracy of the early 20th century, a world based on etiquette and restraint may spring to mind. Of course, this display may be fiction, but leaving the dirtier parts of our past out of the story is often easier than confronting it head-on. However, Mothering Sunday, based on the novel by Graham Swift, centers around a sensual relationship that defies the norms of the time. The taboo nature of the relationship at the heart of Mothering Sunday provides perspective on the era. Sadly, a bloated and uneven film makes it difficult to embrace the nuances of the story.
Mothering Sunday begins in 1924, following the life of maid Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young). The young woman serves the Nivens family (Olivia Colman and Colin Firth) and strikes up a flirtation with frequent guest Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor). Paul’s recent engagement does not stop the two from growing close, and they soon begin a torrid. With flashbacks and cuts to years in the future, we see the effects of Jane and Paul’s relationship over the decades that follow.
Director Eva Hudson showcases her exemplary eye throughout the film, crafting enduring images that stick with you long after the film. It is impossible to discuss Mothering Sunday without addressing the sensual tension coursing through its veins. Young and O’Connor expose their bodies time and time again, but Hudson’s direction highlights their connection. These are passionate moments, and the voyeuristic view of their relationship allows us glimpses of intimacy not meant for other eyes. Hudson’s ability to build this tension with a glance or a smile eventually gives way to wild and carnal pleasures for her characters.
The sensual nature of the film seems destined to be memed forever (especially given the popularity of both O’Connor and Young). However, Hudson’s film delivers far more complicated questions. Most of the film’s weight lies in understanding Survivor’s Guilt. Nearly every character struggles with sadness and depression after tragedy strikes.
Grief and loss can change a person, and for O’Connor’s Paul, this increases his willingness to steal moments with the person he loves. The time with Young feels like his only salvation. O’Connor creates an air of unending sadness across his face, which only shifts around Jane (Young). Despite the moments of happiness they share, O’Connor crafts a directionless melancholy that hangs over his time on screen.
Young’s performance continues to build her resume as a future star. Her transformation is subtle as her life changes. Jane’s relationships with the others characters are constantly in flux. Young explores Jane’s need to belong, bringing her background as an abandoned child into the performance. While she remains disconnected from some of the other men in her life, her vulnerability with Donald (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) reaffirms her humanity.
Unfortunately, Colman and Firth become distracting as background players in the narrative. Each gets standout scenes, but each brings prestige and charisma that pull attention to their smallest moments. The pair of Oscar-winners certainly deliver when called upon, but their presence far outsizes their roles in the film. Two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson delivers an excellent monologue in her short time on-screen. Hopefully, it opens the door for more performances from Ms. Jackson in the next few years. For Dìrísù, his loving performance should open more doors. It is an underwritten role, but Dìrísù embraces every second. Despite his delayed entrance, his entrance and pairing with Young leads to one of the most emotional scenes in the film.
Another issue facing Mothering Sunday comes from the structure of the film. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the multiple timelines is the use of flashback sequences within flashback sequences. As a result, the relatively simple story becomes frustrating to follow. At times the story follows dangling threads but never provides closure to these secondary plots.
Mothering Sunday provides plenty of beautiful moments, but the result is a mixed bag. The film’s excellent score and cinematography highlight beautiful performances by Young and O’Connor. Unfortunately, erratic editing and storytelling prevent Mothering Sunday from reaching its full potential.