If the Merchant Ivory factory of well-appointed period British cinema was still in operation, a film adaptation Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday, debuting today as part of the Cannes Film Festival Cannes Premiere section, might have been something they would have snapped up immediately. The bigger question though is if their usual quietly tasteful approach would have registered quite the results that director Eva Husson (previously in Cannes with her second feature Girls Of The Sun) and screenwriter Alice Birch ( Lady Macbeth, Emmy nominated for Normal) have managed in a beautifully bold take on this story of a budding writer working as a maid in an English manor house circa 1924 whose burning and secret sexual encounters with the upper class young man at a neighboring manor provide the basis of a literary career that defines her life.
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Emboldened by a strong female presence behind the scenes, this is a story, told in a fractured structure of the impact a rich, fiery, highly sexual, emotionally fragile affair can have on the creative process of a woman from the lower class who collides with a level of society she can only serve, but not fully be part of. With Husson’s expert direction, and Birch’s splendid adaptation we see the influences taking hold on that character, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), particularly on one life-changing Sunday when she is essentially naked and alone in more than one way. But with a non-linear approach, the memories of this author-to-be trigger other moments from her life as well, something the novella did more explicitly. Here, Husson employs a variation on that.
The setting is post World War I England. There is a gathering of three neighboring couples to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Paul (Josh O’Connor) and one of their daughters. Of the collective five sons of the three couples, only Paul still lives, the others having died in the war. This is thus a setting where grief and sadness permeate the air on this Mother’s Day, despite those left behind trying to put on a brave face. Unbeknownst to everyone Paul Sheringham has been carrying on a covert affair with Jane, who works for the Nivens, Godfrey (Colin Firth) and Clarrie (Olivia Colman) who lost both their sons to the battlefield. They are close friends of Paul’s parents (Emily Woof and Craig Crosbie) as well as the Hobdays (Simon Shepherd and Caroline Harker) whose daughter Emma( Emma D’Arcy) is engaged to Paul. Although this ‘mothering day’ is meant to be a happy occasion as all are gathered in a picaresque location for lunch as they await the arrival of Paul for the celebration, none of them are aware the engaged young man is also, at that exact moment, engaged in one of his hotly sexual encounters with Jane.
As the day goes on we learn more about all of these characters including Colman’s Clarrie who has never recovered from the double loss of her only children and snaps at one uncontrollable moment, even as Firth’s Godfrey, also clearly still grieving, tries valiantly to keep up a facade. Despite the presence of Oscar winners like Firth and Colman who appear in relatively smaller but effective supporting roles, the focus for the film’s first half is squarely on the relationship between Jane and Paul, a raw and very naked afternoon (there is plenty of full frontal uninhibited nudity from both Young and O’Connor in scenes that took up a full week of the shooting schedule), and even after Paul finally leaves for the lunch, he tells Jane she can stay longer in gorgeous manor since no one will be back until later that afternoon. That leads to a fascinating sequence as Jane, completely without clothes, explores the home, looking at the books on the shelves, seeing the objects on tables, examining the upper class life she only knows as a servant. There is a dramatic twist in the film’s second half that colors everything going forward for this group of people, and Husson employs flashbacks, and flash forwards to put more pieces of the puzzle of Jane’s life together. In fact Young actually gets to age from about 18 to her mid 40’s, the latter period where she is involved in another key relationship in her life with fiancé Donald (Sope Dirisu), a Black man who has a strong influence on her. Ultimately the film moves on to the 1980’s where we meet Jane near the end of her life in a brief, but welcome screen return for the great Glenda Jackson.
At times the film feels a little disjointed as we try to guess what is going on with Jane’s life, but it also proves in the end to be the perfect choice in presenting a portrait of a woman whose burning desires make up the most burning of all – the need to write and impressions she will later put on the page. It is that rare film that shows us, rather than tells us about the birth of an artist. Impeccably produced with lovely cinematography capturing multiple eras from Jamie D. Ramsay, a lilting score by Morgan Kibby, and costumes from three time Oscar winner Sandy Powell whose threads are showcased in close up, both slowly undressing Young and dressing O’Connor. Although for much of their key scenes together Powell’s fine period clothes are not visible at all, they also play an important, if subtle, role in helping define their characters. Nadia Stacey’s hair and makeup designs are also notable, particularly in realistically aging Young for a role you could well imagine Kate Winslet doing earlier in her career. Young is excellent throughout, a bewitching presence we will be hearing much more from no doubt (she made an impression last year opposite Elisabeth Moss in Shirley). O’Connor, currently winning accolades as Prince Charles in The Crown, continues to confirm his position as a rising leading man. The supporting cast including Firth, Jackson, and especially Colman add gravitas to the proceedings, and Patsy Ferran as Jane’s friend Milly is quite fun. The entire ensemble is memorable.
Producers are Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley. Sony Pictures Classics will release domestically at a date to be announced. Film4, BFI, Rocket Science, Lipsync, and Number 9 Films were the production entities.