When a world war comes and wipes away almost an entire generation of young men, the landscape is as much dominated by their absence as the presence of those who remain. Mothering Sunday, based on the novel by Graham Swift, explores grief, love, and change in a world that has undergone a seismic shift. Director Eva Husson pours beauty into every frame, creating richly textured settings that contribute to the conversation being told on screen. Bolstered by strong performances from its young stars and illustrious supporting cast, Mothering Sunday is a gorgeously melancholy slice of post-World War I British life, albeit one whose narrative is arguably a little too slight to give it lasting power.
Odessa Young stars as Jane Fairchild, a young woman who serves as a maid for a wealthy family, the Nivens, following World War I. What was once a proud and alive estate has now faded into shadows, a gloom has fallen over Mr. and Mrs. Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman): They have lost their only son in the war, and life seems utterly purposeless for them now. What is the point of a grand and noble legacy if there’s no one to pass it down to? On this particular day, Jane is given the afternoon to do what she likes, as the Nivens are headed off to an engagement party for Paul (Josh O’Connor), the sole surviving son of their closest friends. They attend with mixed emotions, the loss of their child all the more stinging as they bear witness to a key life event that their son will never have.
This matters little to Jane, however. Because it turns out that the thing she would most like to do is Paul – the two have had a relationship for ages, despite his engagement, one that is made all the more complicated by the death of his two older brothers in the war. Once the third son of a prosperous family, Paul is now the sole heir, first in line to inherit everything. But with this wealth and status comes a certain responsibility to marry well and continue the family line, something that can hardly be accomplished through a tryst with a working-class housekeeper. Still, the two are made for one another, and they spend the entire day in bed, with Paul attempting in vain to delay his own engagement party. As though that could somehow freeze in time the impending future where he marries a childhood friend previously betrothed to his dead older brother, who he feels no romantic love for but pursues out of a sense of duty.
Although the future hurdles relentlessly toward them, Paul and Jane can find brief happiness in their own little love bubble. Husson’s depiction of their sex life is surprisingly frank, given the traditional primness of the period romance genre in cinema. Jane’s exploration of the house after Paul has left, wandering nude from resplendent room to room, feels almost like an intrusion of wildness and nature to the austere surroundings. The estate is frozen in time, kept in melancholy gloom by the death that seems to perpetually surround it, and Jane is the only source of life to be found.
As a young person and a member of the working class, she represents the future, a modern figure walking through a mausoleum of a lost age. Indeed, it is shocking how much the world that these wealthy and privileged figures inhabited just a few short years earlier no longer exists. As we see an older version of Jane reflecting back on this time, it’s clear that this is a transformative period for her as well.
Mothering Sunday has some great successes nestled within its vivid images. The gorgeously lush and detailed production design; the achingly broken performances from supporting actors Colin Firth and Olivia Colman; energetic and bold turns from Josh O’Connor and Odessa Young. Still, there’s a lack of power and conviction in the overall narrative that gives it less impact than it might otherwise have. The framing device of an older Jane, now a published author, looking back at her first love, adds little value to the story – if there’s a message there, it doesn’t quite come through. But regardless, Mothering Sunday is a worthwhile period piece, one that is vibrant and sexually liberated in ways that only serve to highlight the faded world its lead characters bring life to.