Mothering Sunday (2021)
Director: Eva Husson
Screenwriter: Alice Birch
Starring: Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, Sope Dirisu
‘Normal People’ and Lady Macbeth screenwriter Alice Birch has teamed with Girls of the Sun director Eva Husson to adapt Graham Swift’s “Mothering Sunday” novel for the big screen, a wholly British post-war drama filled with commentary on class and social dynamics. In many ways this is your go-to period drama, but Mothering Sunday separates itself by taking those tropes and expectations and delivering them alongside an erotically charged story of a woman undergoing a period of self-realisation. It is a movie headlined by outstanding performances from leads Odessa Young (Shirley) and Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country).
Told through the fractured lens of an autobiography being written by Odessa Young’s Jane Fairchild, Mothering Sunday adapts the same non-linear approach that one’s mind does when attempting to contextualise important moments throughout one’s life. Here, the focus is the post-Great War forbidden romance that Jane (a maid for a rich but childless middle-aged couple) holds with an upper class man by the name of Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor).
The creative decision to reconstruct the narrative in a non-linear fashion may be met with opposition by genre traditionalists, but it does work greatly to highlight the woman at the film’s centre, to bring a tale about war and loss into the realm of female empowerment. Whereas Graham Swift’s novel was very much centred on the loss felt during a Mothering Sunday meal between families who lost their children during the First World War, Birch and Husson’s adaptation is told much more from the realm of romance and class divide, and is therefore much more concerned with the untold female experience than it is with the well-told male experience of 20th century war. In fact, this adaptation seems less concerned with the war in general – moments of loss and incandescent grief hang over every moment like an unwelcome cloud but are rarely central to our focus as we watch Jane love, lust and find her own empowerment.
Though much is gained through the screenplay’s alternative focus, it does seem like opportunities were missed, particularly with regard to the wider emotional resonance of the picture and the depth of each of the characters. There are some hints at a unique take on the central narrative seen many times elsewhere – the lower classes traditionally presented as oppressed are shown to have freedoms the upper classes don’t have due to the self-determined rules of politeness and etiquette the upper classes use as a form of identity – though this seems barely scratched upon and politically ambiguous at best. The shift away from the weight of loss caused by the war and towards a more refined romance (focused on the woman’s journey) also neglects some of the supporting characters, making for a finished piece that does little to make best use of acting juggernauts Colin Firth and Olivia Colman, who play a married couple that have lost each of their children in the war and are attempting to deal with the grief and loss they have been left with.
While Firth and Colman are disappointingly underused, young talents Odessa Young and Josh O’Connor are given a lot of room to find their characters and particularly their romance. It takes not very long at all to believe that the couple know one another, to trust that their intimacy is genuine, to believe that they have good sex. In a movie filled with nudity, including full-frontal male nudity, Young and O’Connor maintain a sense of head-over-heels love for one another, Young’s excited expressions and fluttering eyelashes illustrating her need for her partner’s touch just as O’Connor’s still stare and soft drags on his cigarettes indicate his character’s constant absorption of every part of his partner’s body and mind.
Nudity and sex play a large part in Mothering Sunday’s central aim to tell of a woman’s empowerment, and with women behind the camera it is ensured that these elements are free of the same male gaze that could have transformed them into altogether more gratuitous and cringe-inducing aspects. Through Eva Husson’s lens we see sex and nudity as a form of closeness, an expression of beauty – both from the eye of the beholder and from within – and though this remains vital to every scene, the sex still feels visceral, it still comes across as sexual as opposed to false or awkward.
Mothering Sunday’s approach to sex and nudity offers a consistent reminder of how this is a story being told by a woman looking back on her own life; how this is a story being written by a woman specifically. This helps Husson’s film to avoid any sense of objectification and instead frame all nudity as a form of personal realisation or at the very least retrospective self-appreciation. There also remains a freshness to seeing the male form through the female gaze, O’Connor rarely seen as brutish and often framed as beautiful and delicate, just as has been normalised of women over the past century of male-fronted cinema. Through intimate cinematography (including some fantastic use of natural lighting to highlight creases in skin and tuffs of hair), and equally through the narrative framing of O’Connor’s Paul, we well-and-truly believe this man to be fragile, and more importantly to be capable of deep levels of intimacy – thus we believe in the enormity of his impact on Jane’s life.
So far as period dramas go there is little else to separate Mothering Sunday from the rest of the pack, this particular romance taking more from screenwriter Alice Birch’s Lady Macbeth than from the grand period films of decades past by largely restricting its presentation to one stately home and one period-appropriate car. The lack of budget can certainly be felt in these areas in particular, and while Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography excels in the bedroom there is little by way of establishing shots and pick-ups to separate the visual presentation of Mothering Sunday from an English Heritage advert – needless panning demands attention be brought to Ramsay’s camera work despite the quality of performances on show, and worse still suggests that each of us watching may not have the patience to sit with a still frame for more than just a few moments. The score does much better in emphasising the good that occurs in both the screenplay and the performances, though it is noticeably less memorable than the intrusive camera decisions and sits just on the edges of being impactful to the overall reception of this film.
Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday isn’t going to revolutionise its ages-old genre but praise must be reserved for the combined efforts of its director and screenwriter regarding their attempts to re-appropriate the source material in their own image. This 2021 period drama may be by-the-books in some ways and frustrating in others, but it is always clear what the filmmakers’ intentions are and thus easy to recognise how this film may go on to find an audience of dedicated devotees. Ultimately though, Mothering Sunday will likely be best remembered for the early-career highlights offered by Josh O’Connor and Odessa Young, Young in particular offering a remarkable leading turn that begs to be absorbed just as her love and beauty is absorbed by her on-screen partner.