Mothering Sunday is the latest film by Sony Pictures Classics screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It is an adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel of the same title. The book has been described in the past as a “subtle, erotically charged novella suspended between past and future.” However, that is not what comes across in this screen version of the story.
Mothering Sunday is more of a slow, emotional burn where you need to hold on to the happy moments to get through it all. It is tragic. While there are some tasteful scenes of the nude form, both male and female, it is not erotically charged, to say the least. The director was looking for intimacy. She achieved it, but at what cost? What it comes down to is that I just got bored. What distracted from the positives of the film the most was the pacing. It was extremely slow, and, unfortunately, this was very intentional.
The film is about a young maid, Jane, who works for the Nivens family, an aging couple who lost their sons to World War I. Like many families during that time, grief and loss sometimes get the better of them.
On a special Mother’s Day, Jane gets the day off to do whatever she likes. What she likes is Paul Sheringham, the son of the Nivenses’ neighbors, who is engaged to another woman. As the saying goes, when the cat’s away, the mice will play. Jane and Paul are having a secret affair. On this special day, both families are away at a picnic, giving Jane and Paul ample time alone at Paul’s home. A day of romance, stolen kisses (and then some), wealth, and storytelling turns sideways as the day progresses.
The film stars Odessa Young (Assassination Nation), Josh O’Connor (The Crown), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Olivia Coleman (The Favourite), Glenda Jackson (Sunday Bloody Sunday), and Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù (His House). The film is directed by Eva Husson (Girls of the Sun) and scripted by Alice Birch (Succession).
I love a good period piece. Jane Austen, for example, is one of my favorite writers, and I could watch adaptations of her work all day. Where most adaptations succeed from page to screen is when they achieve the same tone as the story using audio, visuals, and dialogue. Mothering Sunday, based on Swift’s novel, has beautiful wide angles that show the dynamic between classes. It’s bright in color, using lots of white and cream, which sets the mood for romance. While romance is a key factor in the film, it’s not the overarching narrative that I hoped for. If anything, the grief for lost ones is the weight of the film. In Eastern cultures, white symbolizes death, but this isn’t an Eastern culture-based film, so it does not work.
What is great about the film are the individual characters. Everyone in this film is a phenomenal actor; there’s no doubt about that. Coleman plays the distraught, slightly hilarious grieving mother who has lost her sons in WWI. Firth is a bumbling, awkward man who deals with grief in a completely different way than his wife. He treats Jane as a stand-in daughter. Firth and Coleman together on screen are indeed like watching an old married couple.
O’Conner plays Josh, Jane’s unrequited love, as a young man trying to do the right thing by everyone. He has awful survivor’s guilt because he is the only one from his family who came back from the front. He walks around with a heavy burden and a sense of honor and duty. His love for Jane does not outweigh what he must do, hence the marriage to a woman he does not love.
Young as Jane Fairchild is spot on. She is innocent at times yet can hold her own. She can be the maid, and she can be the vixen — very naughty librarian vibes.
These characters are solid, obviously ripped right out of the book. It’s a shame we can’t spend more time with the characters in a film that is the perfect blend of tragic and sensual.
Mothering Sunday was no doubt directed and edited with precision. Individual shots are gorgeous. The close-up is used regularly and well. The intimacy felt with each one was ideal for the scene. Time jumps were used regularly, too; they were not as smooth as I would have liked, but they were still useful in identifying the story and emotion that wove throughout. There is a vulnerability that I respect from the director in her choice of shots and timeline jumps. They did more to set up Jane Fairchild as the heroine of her own story, even though she was in love. There was also a very interesting take on writers and the achievement in solitude that may come from the unintended consequences of loss.
Mothering Sunday is currently screening at TIFF, but you can catch it in theaters on November 19, 2021.
For more of our reviews from TIFF check out the following: