Review: Mothering Sunday

Adapted from a Graham Swift novel published in 2016, Eva Husson’s debut feature feels like an attempt to inject oxygen into the stuffy atmosphere that usually surrounds the so-called British prestige picture. Comprising three different time periods but centered on the titular holiday in 1924, the movie is a blend of highbrow dialogue and overly impressionistic direction that aims to penetrate the genteel surfaces of English aristocracy and show how, deep down, the rich are just as capable of suffering as the poor. The main difference is that the poor, thanks to a closer proximity to reality, have a readier capacity to probe their suffering for meaning.

This latter idea is personified by the protagonist, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Yound), an orphan employed as a maid at the country estate of Lord and Lady Niven (Colin Firth, Olivia Colman), who lost their two sons in the trenches of France. In fact, the town has lost most of its generation of high-born men to World War I, a circumstance that unites the local gentry under a pall of open-ended mourning. Their only sense of hope is invested in the impending nuptials between the sole surviving youth, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), and the bitterly resistent Emma (Emma D’Arcy), who was once informally betrothed to one of the Nivens’ sons. As it happens, Jane has been pursuing a passionate, secret love affair with Paul for some time, and on this particular Sunday that affair will come to an end since the wedding, to which Paul has willingly assented out of class obligation, is scheduled to take place in less than a fortnight. 

Husson capably interweaves Paul’s and Jane’s lovemaking, their postcoital discussions about fate and literature, a strained riverside lunch attended by the three manor families of the town, and Jane’s future some years down the road as she embarks on a writing career using this pivotal afternoon to explore her traumatized psyche. This blending of two versions of the past (later there will be a second flash-forward, so to speak) and how they speak to each other highlights the inventiveness of the plotting and the sharpness of the characterizations, but the effort exerted to pull it all together into a thematic whole comes across as even more pretentious than what you get in the worst kind of Merchant-Ivory project. All this existential drama is siphoned into Jane’s life as a writer, as if it were all set up by the gods with that end game in sight. Though I’m tempted to blame Swift, it’s mostly due to the heavy lifting on the part of Husson, whose reliance on closeups and hazy rays of sunlight borders on the obsessive, not to mention Morgan Kibby’s derivative chamber music score, which repeatedly calls attention to itself. Fans of Downton Abbey may find the sexual candor and interclass dynamics shocking and thrilling, but for those of us who approach this milieu with less fawning regard, the movie offers nothing provocative except a clever story. 

Opens May 27 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).

Mothering Sunday home page in Japanese

photo (c) Channel Four Television Corporation, The British Film Institute and Number 9 Films Sunday Limited 2021

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