Review: ‘Mothering Sunday,’ starring Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Glenda Jackson, Olivia Colman and Colin Firth

April 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Odessa Young and Josh O’Connor in “Mothering Sunday” (Photo by Jamie D. Ramsay/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Mothering Sunday”

Directed by Eva Husson

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of England from 1918 through the 1980s, the dramatic film “Mothering Sunday” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A woman’s journey as a maid and as a successful author are shown at various points in her life, which includes impactful love affairs that she had with two very different men.

Culture Audience: “Mothering Sunday” will appeal primarily to people interested in artsy British movies that have very good acting but with slow pacing that might frustrate some viewers.

Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Odessa Young in “Mothering Sunday” (Photo by Robert Viglasky/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Mothering Sunday” can be too pretentious for its own good, but the cast members’ thoughtful performances enrich the quality of this slow-paced film. Viewers must also be willing to tolerate the movie’s non-chronological storytelling of love, tragedy and hope. Because the movie’s story spans several decades (from 1918 to the 1980s) and has a timeline that jumps all over the place, “Mothering Sunday” requires a viewer’s full attention to keep track of which period of time is happening for the film’s protagonist in her youth.

Directed by Eva Husson, “Mothering Sunday” (which takes place in unnamed parts of England) touches on issues of upward mobility, inner turmoil, and how social class affects the decisions people make in love and marriage. Alice Birch adapted the “Mothering Sunday” screenplay from Graham Swift’s 2016 novel of the same name. “Mothering Sunday” made the rounds at several major festivals in 2021, including the Cannes Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the Toronto International Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival. Cinematically, the movie is sumptuous to look at, but following the story will test the patience of people with short attention spans or those who have no interest in British period dramas.

“Mothering Sunday” depicts parts of the adult life of Jane Fairchild, who goes from being a maid to becoming an award-winning, famous author whose specialty is fiction writing. That transformation isn’t shown right away, as Jane’s life is revealed in scenes that can best be compared to a patchwork quilt. Most of the movie shows Jane in her 20s (played by Odessa Young) in the 1920s, while there are a few, very brief scenes of Jane in her 80s (played by Glenda Jackson) in the 1980s. Jackson’s scenes as Jane get only about five minutes of screen time in the movie. “Mothering Sunday” only shows Jane in these two decades.

The story is told in a non-linear way in the movie, but there are visual clues (such as Jane’s hairstyles) to show what period of time in her life is being depicted in each scene of her youth. It’s eventually revealed that Jane is an orphan who has no known relatives. She was abandoned by her single mother at an orphanage when she was a baby or a toddler. Jane’s childhood is never really shown or explained in great detail, but she’s grown up to be an introverted loner.

Somehow, when Jane was in her late teens in 1918, she ended up working as a house maid for a wealthy married couple named Godfrey Niven (played by Colin Firth) and Clarrie Niven (played by Olivia Colman), who live on an estate called Beachwood House. Much of the movie takes place in 1924, when Jane has been employed by the Nivens for six years. At this point in her life, Jane doesn’t see herself as being anything but part of society’s working class, until she has a forbidden love affair that changes her life.

This romance is the catalyst for much of what happens in the story and why Jane decides to transform herself into becoming a writer. The man whom she falls in love with is Paul Sheringham (played by Tom O’Connor), the son of wealthy spouses Mr. and Mrs. Sheringham (played by Craig Crosbie and Emily Woof), who don’t have first names in the movie. In 1924, Paul is in law school but he’s not particularly passionate about becoming an attorney. He’s chosen this profession because it’s expected of him.

Paul’s two older brothers Dick and Freddy no longer live in the family mansion. “Mothering Sunday” opens with a voiceover narration that essentially tells that the Niven family and Sheringham family have both experienced the tragic deaths of their young adult sons. World War I is one reason, but there are other reasons for these untimely deaths. Jane can be heard saying, “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed,” as a horse is shown running in an open field.

Paul can then be heard telling Jane that his family used to own a thoroughbred racing horse named Fandango. Paul says there was a family joke about the horse where “Ma and Pa owned the head and the body. Dick, Freddy and I had a leg each.” Jane then asks, “What about the fourth leg?” Paul replies, “Ah, the fourth leg. That was always the question, Jane.” Toward the end of the movie, this fourth leg is mentioned again in a way that will either make viewers roll their eyes in ridicule or possibly bring viewers to tears.

The title of “Mothering Sunday” comes from a pivotal Mothering Sunday (the British version of Mother’s Day) in 1924. Godfrey (who is kind, respectful and optimistic) generously decides to give Jane the day off from work, even though she doesn’t have a mother in her life, and Jane isn’t a mother. Jane’s closest female friend is the Niven family cook: Milly (played by Patsy Ferran), who has a bubbly personality but is a little shy when it comes to dating and romance. Milly and Jane spend part of this day off together.

It just so happens that on this day, Paul will have the mansion all to himself. And so, he calls the Niven home, knowing that Jane will answer the phone, to tell her to come over so they can have a sexual tryst. Jane pretends it’s a wrong number when Clarrie asks who called. The movie never details how long Paul and Jane have been having these secret hookups, but there’s a flashback scene that shows the day that Paul and Jane met, which was in 1918, shortly after she began working for the Niven family.

Paul and Jane tell each other that they are each other’s best friend. They’re keeping their romance a secret not just because they come from different social classes but also because Paul is expected to marry someone in his social circle: a spoiled heiress named Emma Hobday (played by Emma D’Arcy), whose parents—Giles Hobday (played by Simon Shepherd) and Sylvia Hobday (played by Caroline Harker)—are good friends of the Sheringham spouses and the Niven spouses. Paul doesn’t love Emma, but he feels obligated to marry her to please both sets of parents and to produce heirs from this marriage.

The Niven spouses have a tension-filled marriage because Clarrie is in a deep depression over the death of her son James, who was nearly engaged to Emma before James was tragically killed in combat during World War I. James and Paul were close friends, so Paul opens up a little bit to Jane about how James’ death affected him. Emma’s thoughts about James’ death are never shown in the movie, which portrays Emma as one-dimensional and someone who pouts a lot.

Clarrie’s grief sometimes comes out in angry spurts. She often acts irritable with her husband Godfrey and insults him in public. When she’s not acting cranky and annoyed with the world, Clarrie is withdrawn and quiet. Clarrie also acts resentful if she sees other people being what she thinks is being too happy for her comfort level. However, there’s a pivotal moment between Clarrie and Jane later in the movie that shows Clarrie’s hostile exterior is really just a mask for being heartbroken. This moment between Clarrie and Jane is one of the best scenes in “Mothering Sunday.”

Fans of Oscar-winning stars Colman and Firth might be disappointed to know that Colman and Firth don’t have as much screen time in “Mothering Sunday” as their top billing would suggest. Firth and Colman are each in the movie for about 15 minutes. However, they make the most of their screen time in portraying these contrasting and conflicted spouses.

Jane and Paul’s secret love affair is about more than just sex. They connect on an intellectual level. Jane loves to read and often sneaks into the Niven family library to read their books. Paul and Jane also bond on an emotional level, because they both feel like misfits in their environment, where they are expected to live a certain way because of society’s stereotypes for people of certain social classes.

Although there are full-frontal nude scenes (male and female) in “Mothering Sunday,” they are more about natural intimacy than eroticism. The sex scenes are actually very tame, but the full-frontal nudity is the adult-oriented content that will make parents of underage children decide if they think if it’s appropriate for their children to watch this movie. It’s implied throughout “Mothering Sunday” that Paul is Jane’s first true love.

Viewers can speculate that the movie has more male nudity than female nudity because “Mother Sunday” has a “female gaze” from a woman director. However, it can just as easily be interpreted that because these trysts happen in the Sheringham home, Paul simply feels more comfortable walking around fully naked in family house. In comparison, Jane is a little more guarded because she would suffer worse consequences than Paul if she and Paul got caught.

On the Mothering Sunday that changes Jane’s life, Paul has decided to have a tryst with Jane while Emma, his parents and Emma’s parents are waiting for him to arrive at a luncheon that all six of them are supposed to have together. Paul is going to the luncheon, but he knows he’s going to be late. What happens that day is revealed slowly revealed in flashbacks.

“Mothering Sunday” doesn’t handle the transition very well in showing Jane’s life after she decides to become a professional writer. The introduction to this part of her life is non-chronological and it’s rushed into the movie in an abrupt manner. It’s in this part of Jane’s life that she is involved in another meaningful love affair.

His name is Donald (played by Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), and he is also a published author. When Donald and Jane first met (which is shown in a flashback scene), she hadn’t yet become a professional writer. She was working in a bookstore, he was a customer, and they had an instant rapport. Jane and Donald are both loyal and supportive partners to each other. In contrast to Jane’s secretive relationship with Paul, the relationship between Donald and Jane is out in the open. However, the movie never addresses the fact that Jane and Donald are in an interracial relationship in the 1920s.

This lack of acknowledgement of this couple’s racial differences implies that they are living in a part of England where interracial relationships were more accepted than in other parts of England. Still, it does come across as very phony and willfully ignorant that the movie never shows Donald and Jane experiencing or talking about any prejudice from other people because of the couple’s interracial relationship. Even in the most open-minded and progressive areas of England, a black man and a white woman in a romantic relationship would still cause problems for this type of interracial couple in the 1920s.

There are other large gaps in Jane’s life that aren’t adequately explained. Viewers never get to see if Jane went through any struggles as a writer before she had her first book published. Donald and Jane’s courtship is also a big mystery. The movie jumps from Donald and Jane being close to getting married, to a flashback scene to how they met, to Donald proposing marriage and Jane’s response.

Throughout this movie’s very messy and haphazard timeline, Young gives a consistently transfixing performance as Jane, who is an interesting contrast of being verbally articulate yet hard-to-read with her inner emotions. O’Connor also handles his role with aplomb to show that Paul is not just another spoiled rich kid, although Paul sometimes acts that way. Dìrísù doesn’t have much to do in the movie, because Donald is a very underdeveloped character.

Viewers might be bored with a lot of characters in “Mothering Sunday,” but Jane remains an interesting enigma whose life journey can inspire a lot of curiosity. Jane has been taught for most of her life to repress her emotions, so when she discovers that she is an artist who wants to express her emotions through her writing, it’s a metamorphosis that is thrilling to behold. And most audiences will be rooting for an orphan who grew up not knowing any parental love and is trying to find true love and a family of her own.

Unfortunately, because the movie frequently interrupts itself with flashbacks, viewers of “Mothering Sunday” never get a full picture of Jane blossoming as an artist. She’s certainly someone who has a lot of things that happen to her, but there should have been more in the movie that showed Jane being more of an active doer in her life, instead of someone passively reacting to whatever life threw her way. Someone like Jane doesn’t become a famous and highly respected author just by “luck.”

“Mothering Sunday” has a lot of scenes of people smoking cigarettes as they look out windows or stare off into space, looking pensive or worried. It’s not a movie that presents the story in a particularly exciting or straightforward way. But for people who like emotional nuance and characters that are like puzzles to be solved, there’s plenty to appreciate about “Mothering Sunday.” Just make sure you watch the movie when there’s very little chance that you’ll fall asleep, because a lot of how this story is presented can be snoozeworthy.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Mothering Sunday” in select U.S. cinemas on March 25, 2022. The movie’s release expanded in the U.S. on April 8, 2022. “Mothering Sunday” was released in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe in 2021.

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