Mothering Sunday, 2021.
Directed by Eva Husson.
Starring Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Colin Firth, Emma D’Arcy, Olivia Colman, Sope Dirisu and Glenda Jackson.
A maid meets with her posh boy lover, as he prepares to marry a woman approved by his parents.
There comes a point in every film festival experience when you question why you’ve even bothered to leave the house. For me, that turning point of the 2021 London Film Festival was the 8am press screening of Mothering Sunday. Within 10 minutes or so of the movie starting, I realised I had hauled myself out of bed at five o’clock in order to sit through a pretty dull First World War weepie – and not even a particularly good one.
Unfolding over a series of time periods – communicated via an ungainly and messy, non-linear structure – the movie depicts a final morning of sun and canoodling between maid Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) and posh boy Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor). Jane works for the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), who live next door to Paul’s family home, which is emptier than it once was as a result of several of Paul’s brothers dying on the battlefield. It becomes clear that he and Jane are meeting because he is on the verge of marrying Emma (Emma D’Arcy), and soon won’t be able to see her again.
Director Eva Husson helms Mothering Sunday with a woozy lack of urgency. This is a story unfolding in a world that is operating at a slower pace, thoroughly weighed down by the grief sitting heavily on the nation’s shoulders. Jane and Paul spend much of the movie wandering naked around the cavernous Sheringham home, with Jane eventually left on her own to wistfully trigger memories by stroking the spines of books. It’s all achingly languorous and lacking in momentum, as if nobody is really bothered by the supposedly huge emotions at play.
This low-energy approach stretches to the performers, who are consistently upstaged by the frankly excellent array of sweaters and party dresses put together by costume designer Sandy Powell. Colin Firth looks as if he’s simply hoping he’ll be able to keep some of the knitwear. Young and O’Connor try their best, but their characters are so bland and lifeless that they never stand a chance of injecting any passion into the story. There’s a lot of nudity and shagging, but the film is a long way from ever becoming sexy.
The only real bright spot in the movie – aside from Powell’s work – is Olivia Colman. As ever, she completely understands the assignment – as I believe the kids are saying these days – and delivers a performance in which her social niceties barely conceal the heavyweight sadness in her heart. In several moments, her mask slips and she bursts forth with angry sadness, as if railing against the buttoned-up determination of everyone else to simply pretend everything is proceeding as it should be.
Meanwhile, the non-linear storytelling seems to be constructed without any real rhyme or reason and, as a result, leaves talented actors like Sope Dirisu with morsels of character, rather than anything more concrete. The book by Graham Swift upon which the film is based runs to less than 150 pages and, perhaps, if Alice Birch’s script had brought some of that sense of brevity to the adaptation, it might have felt less like a tedious slog.
Instead, the movie is an hour or so of nothing much at all, followed by a third act of syrupy, maudlin revelations akin to the worst Nicholas Sparks tales. It’s a shame to see performers of this calibre squandered on such a tedious viewing experience. O’Connor, in particular, was so raw and fascinating in Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country. While that film had a rich emotional core and plenty to say, this one seems to be mostly about naked people stroking books.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.