Mothering Sunday, 2021.
Directed by Eva Husson.
Starring Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Glenda Jackson, Sope Dirisu, Nathan Reeve, Samuel Barlow, Dexter Raggatt, Patsy Ferran, Charlie Oscar, Emma D’Arcy, Simon Shepherd, Caroline Harker, Craig Crosbie, Emily Woof, Alex Cubb, Forrest Bothwell, and Albert Welling.
A maid living in post-World War I England secretly plans to meet with the man she loves before he leaves to marry another woman.
In the middle of performing her maidly duties for the Niven household, Jane (an evocative Odessa Young, bursting with dynamic body language) answers a phone call. On the other end is Paul (Josh O’Connor, also expressive and captivating), although Jane refers to him in code as a madam with the wrong number. In Mothering Sunday, they are intensely in love and having a secret affair. Yet, such surface-level fiery romance never elicits an investment considering director Eva Husson (collaborating with screenwriter Alice Birch, adapting the novel by Graham Swift) only seems to be concerned with place and time (the grieving between World Wars) rather than character exploration or giving the relationship a hint of depth beyond the lust of the forbidden couple’s opportunistic seizing of the titular holiday for their first instance of privacy.
To be fair, there are also stories within stories. Glimpses of an elderly Jane (Glenda Jackson) reveal the cushy life of a successful author, whereas other flashforwards (still relatively young) depict Jane in a different relationship, this time with philosopher Donald (Sope Dirisu), at an earlier stage of her novelist ambitions. With that in mind, it’s evident that whatever happens on Mothering Sunday will likely be a pillar that shapes Jane’s future and career. The issue is that the narrative does a weak job at making any of these specific periods of Jane’s life remotely engaging.
It’s almost unbelievable that a film centered on infidelity, burning love, relentless displays of intimacy (Odessa Young probably has more scenes naked than she does clothed, and should be applauded for having the courage to perform some of the basic tasks she does on screen here while bearing all) is incapable of working up a plot worth caring about. There’s no reason to root for the romance or hope they are found out. That doesn’t take away that Odessa Young and Josh O’Connor have an enveloping sexual dynamic (and are capable of saying much through looks and stares, both often entirely naked eliciting a boldness to the proceedings I can’t imagine many other actors committing to), but it’s not nearly enough to make someone care about their predicament.
Mothering Sunday attempts to manufacture up some drama as Paul, who is indebted to what’s expected from him in his era, is pressured to take up law school and marry Emma (Emma D’Arcy). It’s a relationship neither of them seems happy to be in as everyone gathers for a picnic lunch (with Paul staying behind and joining late for reasons that should be obvious by now). Family friends Mr. and Mrs. Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman, both supremely wasted aside from an impressionable monologue from the latter) still feel the effects of all the young men lost from World War I. Paul himself briefly touches on his long-gone friends while talking with Jane during their lewd play date. None of it ever expands on the characters or the central story in a meaningful way.
The craftsmanship is undoubtedly sound, as a lowkey score from Morgan Kibby subtly adds immersion to the lovemaking and Jane’s eventual wandering around the luxurious home, seemingly searching for any trace or scent of Paul possible while also investigating the library. Soon after, Mothering Sunday careens into contrived writing, continuing to build up to nothing at all. As the secondary relationship with Donald begins to prioritize the narrative, the same writing flaws persist and only come across as more frustrating. For a film about how one incredible day filled with unforgettable emotions can mold someone’s entire life, it’s a dry and languid dud. There needs to be more than blazing chemistry between leads.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com