Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) wanders around a mansion that isn’t hers. Her body moves like a ghost, silently drifting from room to room. She has the whole place to herself, free to eat and drink the luxurious foods and beverages that she could never afford. The golden light of the afternoon sun radiates off her bare porcelain skin and bathes her in an ethereal glow. She’s not dead, but her illicit affair is. Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), the upper-class gentleman with whom she’s been secretly entangled while employed as a maid for the neighboring Mr. and Mrs. Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), is set to be married in just 11 days. It is Mother’s Day, 1924, and they have just whiled the hours away in each other’s arms for the last time. Jane should feel tragic, but she doesn’t. She will soon enough, though.
Mothering Sunday — the English-language debut of director Eva Husson and screenwriter Alice Birch’s first film since Lady Macbeth (2016) — sticks to this type of languid and poetic pacing for most of its duration. It showcases sequence after sequence of dreamlike visuals while hopping around in time and place, throughout this fateful afternoon in late March. Based on a novella of the same name by Graham Swift, it’s clear how this mosaic-like plot could work well on the page, with room to go long on things like description and extended bits of scene-setting. In a film, it’s even clearer how much creative energy it requires to replicate that feeling of being unmoored from a conventional timeline or structure. It’s much more difficult to achieve such a thing on screen rather than on paper. Alas, Mothering Sunday tries.
In the film’s primary thread, Jane Fairchild is told by Mr. Niven that she and her fellow maid Milly (Patsy Ferran) can enjoy their Mother’s Day free from responsibilities around the house. It’s post-World War I England, and all of Mr. and Mrs. Niven’s sons have been killed in battle. To say that a damper has been put on the estate would be an understatement. Mrs. Niven can barely utter a word without tears welling in her eyes, and Mr. Niven’s blank state suggests an imminent dissociative break. It is not a pleasant work environment, to say the least. As such, the ladies take their rare day off without hesitation. Biking around the gravel roads of rural England, the two can’t help but smile broadly. Cinematographer Jamie Ramsay’s take on the scene is to shoot it with such immensely bright light, it’s as if the audience has stepped from a pitch-black room into full midday sun. It’s practically squint-inducing.
Milly has nothing special on the agenda, but Jane — who received a tantalizing phone call earlier in the morning, confirming her plans — has just one thing on her mind: Paul. While the Nivens, the rest of the Sheringhams, and Paul’s fiancée’s family, the Hobdays, enjoy lunch, Jane and her lover enjoy each other for a final time. Their passionate, ephemeral physical connection easily consumes a decent chunk of the day. While lying there in someone else’s bed, Jane’s mind drifts: both to her past and future self, from the start of her relationship with Paul as a young lady to her recollection of their ill-fated connection as an older woman. Birch’s script allows editor Emile Orsini to go wild in the cutting room, quickly splicing in visions from Jane’s past life and the sobering hints of what’s to come for her in the years ahead, all while still remaining rooted in one sensual afternoon.
One has to wonder what Mothering Sunday would have been like if every performance in the film weren’t delivered with the utmost restraint. From major roles to the supporting cast, not one actor could be accused of going over the top. Instead, everyone is working overtime to match each other’s whispery, subdued dialogue. This muted approach adds to the general sleepy feeling that washes over the film during dry spells of prosaic pondering. Beyond the physicality of Jane and Paul’s relationship, the two are shown having long, contemplative discussions about how the upper class lives and about the world that exists outside of their little bubble in the countryside. Moments like these feel especially hard to endure when executed in this somnolent style.
There’s a similar curiosity concerning what kind of film Mothering Sunday would be without all the flashbacks and flash-forwards. At best, they add very little to the central narrative in 1924, and at worst, they outright detract from the strength of what’s going on in the main thread. This is exemplified by the scenes that take place in the future, when the Jane who once worked for the Nivens has changed so much she feels like an entirely different character altogether. At least the flashbacks add some context and some gravity to her and Paul’s farewell. The flash-forwards aren’t nearly as enlightening.
Even with its occasional lethargy and its unwarranted timeline jumping, Mothering Sunday does have its moments of genuinely moving poignancy. Its portrayal of grief in the parents and relatives of men lost in the Great War can be quite impactful, and it only grows more so with an unexpected shocker in the third act that takes both the audience and the characters by surprise. Still, there’s undoubtedly a much sharper movie buried somewhere underneath all the extra weight. The film is at its best when reflecting back on the relationship as opposed to staring ahead, as the function of these glimpses at Jane and Paul’s origins are a lot more clear than the purpose of looking at her later in life. In its current form, the chronology is just too muddled to be as affecting as it could be, resulting in more confusion than actual connection with the material.
Mothering Sunday opens in select local theaters on April 15.