Runtime: 104 minutes
Director: Eva Husson
Writer: Alice Birch (screenplay) based on a novel by Graham Swift
Actors: Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, Sope Dirisu, Glenda Jackson
By Joan Amenn
Invoking the past oeuvres of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, “Mothering Sunday” (2021) is an elegiac look back at the United Kingdom as it still reeled from the staggering losses of WW1 while their American allies partied like it was the Roaring Twenties, because it was. Somehow that gaiety didn’t seem to quite reach across the pond as whole communities mourned their sons, brothers and fathers.
Cinematographer Jamie Ramsay makes the rural estates of early 20th Century Britain look as lush as the landscape backgrounds of a Gainsborough society portrait. The mansions themselves seem more like mausoleums as their owners wander their halls with slightly lost looks on their faces. Jane (Odessa Young) is a maid to the Niven family, except there are only Mr. and Mrs. Niven (Colin Firth, Olivia Colman) to wait upon. Firth is a master class in how a small downturn of one side of the mouth can convey so much emotion. He is a man who knows the remainder of his days will be measured in strained formal luncheon dates with his contemporaries where he once looked forward to weddings, christenings, and birthdays.
Colman is almost somnambulistic in her deep grief but when it rises to the surface, her wail is heart piercing. Mrs. Niven is all but broken completely both emotionally and physically but she recognizes in Jane a freedom she will never know. Colman and Young share a scene that is devastating in its simple vulnerability as one confides in the other something they would probably never say to one of their class and reputation.
Jane is a bit of a free spirit in having no family of her own. Her attraction to a man that will lead to complications in her life and her place in the Niven’s home takes up most of the film. Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor) is charming but has the slightly too tight smile of someone who is slowly unraveling from unrelenting survivor’s guilt. Their affair will change Jane’s life and ignite in her the long gestating desire to become a writer.
The film really takes off when it depicts Jane’s relationship with Donald (Sope Dirisu) and their chemistry sizzles on screen. They seem so well matched, the viewer wishes they could see more of their lives together. In some alternate reality, these two would be opening their home as an intellectual salon to the smart and literary of their world. We do find out from elderly Jane (Glenda Jackson) that she did indeed find some happiness, but perhaps not in the way she had hoped as a young woman serving as a maid to the upper class.
Any film that gives us even a few minutes of screen time of the immortal Jackson, still riveting with that incredible voice and signature cock of her head, is a reason to celebrate. While the pacing of “Mothering Sunday” drags a bit in the middle, it is a beautiful film with several strong performances. Odessa Young is superb as radiant, determined and self-reliant Jane. Don’t miss this one.