Writer: Alice Birch
Director: Eva Husson
Oh, how dreary it is to see another lingering period drama set in the lush countryside on a beautiful summer’s day about characters with nothing to do but smoke cigarettes for nearly two hours. Who needs plot, substance and purpose when there is luxuriant scenery, a slight malaise and a lovely picnic with nice hats? Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday given a Gala slot at the London Film Festival is a drab, one-note affair based on a Graham Swift novella from 2016 that probably should have stayed on the page.
Housemaid Jane is given the day off by her kindly employer Mr Niven (Colin Firth) on Mothering Sunday in 1924 and she spends the morning in bed with her aristocratic lover Paul Sherringham who is about to marry another woman for family reasons. But the day proves fateful for everyone and, as the Nivens and Sherringhams meet for a lunch to celebrate the anticipated nuptials, the rest of Jane’s life is spent trying to write the events of that day.
Husson’s film aims for a Merchant Ivory charm but becomes overly ponderous, eking out a paper-thin plot about the affair between Jane and Paul while looking in all the wrong directions for the film’s emotional content. There are suggestions of families ravaged by the First World War, sons and heirs wiped out and, for the sullen girl Paul is to marry a limited choice of partner. Husson pauses briefly to show us a brittle lunch and Olivia Coleman’s Mrs Niven having a good cry about her lost sons, but Mothering Sunday never digs deep enough into the enormous social and emotional effect on these people to give the story any proper context.
Instead, it’s too focused on Jane (Odessa Young) – whose name is repeated every other sentence lest we forget who she is – and Paul (Josh O’Connor) whose tedious ‘love story’ is largely encapsulated in a single sex scene on Mothering Sunday in which both actors spend a good portion of the film wandering around naked, and don’t even seem to care for each other that much. In one of the most inexplicable sequences, Jane remains in the Sherringham house and decides to explore it without any of her clothes on, wandering from room to room, borrowing books from their library and, rather unhygienically, sitting in their chairs.
Maybe it works in the novel, but on screen it just feels gratuitous and completely out of character for a girl raised in a children’s home who has known nothing but service to so confidently wander around the home of complete strangers with no fear that she was overstepping the mark, that someone might be at home to catch-her or that she would actually be freezing – country houses are never exactly warm even in summer. This protracted sequence forms the meat of the film, yet it adds nothing at all to the plot.
Two secondary sections celebrating the noble life of the writer take place in the 1960s when Jane is living with Donald who unrealistically supports her writing even as his faces his own dire trauma while the pointless addition of a third version of Jane confronting an even more unlikely gaggle of reporters on her doorstep after winning a major literary prize is just an excuse to have Glenda Jackson in the movie.
While it is great to see female-led narratives about the neglected inter-war period written and directed by female creatives, Mothering Sunday dramatises the least interesting part of its story. How and why Jane and Paul, or even Jane and Donald are a couple and that terrible loss being experienced by the families is crushed under the weight of all that mooning about love. At least the hats look nice.
Mothering Sunday is screening at the London Film Festival.