Come the end of director Eva Husson and screenwriter Alice Birch’s Mothering Sunday (2021), I was left feeling sorry that the film had to end. It’s not a feeling exclusive to cinema; in stories, we can find a friend or someone we wish we could have known. In the lead protagonist of Jane (Odessa Young), I found this person.
French filmmaker François Truffaut’s question, whether cinema is more important than life, is not as silly as it may sound. For introverted personalities, film and other stories offer a safe space where we can find human connections, a place to belong that we struggle to find in the real world.
Adapted from Graham Swift’s 2016 novel of the same name, the film opens on a Mothering Sunday in Henley, England. It’s the mid-1920s and families are still grieving the loss of their sons in the First World War. The prominent families are taking lunch by the river. Jane, a young maid for the Niven family, is involved in a secret affair with Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), the sole surviving son of another prominent family. The pair need to be discreet because he’s engaged to Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy), who was the intended wife of his older brother.
Jane is coy about what she’s going to do with her day off when asked by Mr. Niven (Colin Firth). While the families gather by the river, Jane and Paul enjoy the privacy of his vacant family home, shedding their clothes, making love, and afterward, they lay around naked, smoking and talking. Decades later, Jane, now a writer, is living with Donald (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), but she’s distracted from working on her new thriller by the memories of the events surrounding that day when tragedy ripped open grief’s wounds.
Control is an organic theme in stories set in this time period. At lunch, excuses are made for Paul’s absence, but his fiancée brushes them off with a quizzical comment about why she’d be annoyed when he’s often late. One of the ladies tells Emma, “You’re making us all so happy.” The exchange suggests the two are marrying out of duty, not love, which contrasts with Paul and Jane’s intimacy.
Love in this period amongst a certain class did not necessarily blossom in the open. Instead, it was banished to places where it could be discreetly expressed, especially when there was a power imbalance between the two people.
It’s ironic when we can see the grief-stricken Niven and his wife (Olivia Colman), who are prisoners of their pain. The loss of her sons is a physical and emotional weight, and her husband’s softly spoken and uncomfortable demeanour, as he tries to find pleasure in life, is shaped by the loss that inextricably binds them. The families know what it is to love, the warmth it brings to life, and yet they mourn its loss as they deny it.
In this milieu governed by stifled and repressive habits to fulfill traditional social values and expectations, it’s easy to see Jane as a subversive character. Her willingness to explore who she is overturns these social habits, fuelling her dynamic presence. She shows a literary curiosity, walks around Paul’s house naked, smoking a cigarette after he’s gone off to join Emma for lunch. Years later she’s in a relationship with Donald, a black writer. Throughout her life she’s the proverbial breath of fresh air, exploring her intellect and sensual desires.
Jane’s skill is to know how to fit in. She is the subtle and quiet image of a woman. She’s deeply feminine, but she offsets the stereotypical image of femininity. She’s not trying to be deliberately provocative; rather, she’s likely an echo of truth behind the disingenuous and popular narrative of history that tries to sanitise through rigid stereotypes. At no point does Jane labour under the weight of being a woman of her time – she’s a woman who is continually blossoming. Unlike all the other characters, except Donald, she is the only one who is “free”.
Close attention should be paid to how the characters interact with one another because it reveals a nuance to the theme of control. Jane is verbally deferential when in the presence of her employers, playing her role. With Paul, her tone is more inquisitive, and he too shows another side of himself that contrasts to the part he likely plays around his family.
Indeed, the cast of characters are all trapped in performances, and even honest conversations of humility between Jane and Mr. and Mrs. Niven, struggle under the weight of their roles. The scenes with Jane and Donald have a vibe of being authored, however, the way they talk to one another reveals a self-awareness that allows them to be true to themselves. They are authors of their own lives.
The war and the tragedy that unfolds on this Mothering Sunday can be contextualised as a fateful lesson for these influential and powerful families. Husson and Birch don’t position the families as particularly guilty of hubris, but they’re reminded of their fallibility in spite of their wealth, power, and influence. The façade of a once pristine life is chipped by the debris of death, their lavish lifestyles and traditions provide little solace.
The film is beautifully made with particular attention to the dialogue, performances, and staging, but it rides the emotional pain that swells beneath picturesque England. Lacking a heart, Mothering Sunday builds patiently towards its defining idea. Jane has no family, and Mrs. Niven sees in her someone who can escape grief. She tells her she was, “comprehensively bereaved at birth” and she must use this as a gift. The theme of control twists in an unexpected way, and honouring its sad soul, the story matures into a touching reflection of how grief touches us all.
Mothering Sunday is an understated film that slowly builds an experience that develops a bond between the audience and Jane. Cutting between the past and the present, the drama effectively collapses time in on itself.
In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the shape our lives will take, and merging Jane’s past and present is the first necessary creative choice in this film. The second is to reject the efforts of narrative to explain. Husson lets understanding emerge simply by watching the characters. This is a delicate and remarkable film, narratively sparse but emotionally rewarding.