Arthouse flourishes and trickery drown this try-hard literary adaptation
Director: Eva Husson
Cast: Odessa Young (Jane Fairchild), Josh O’Connor (Paul Sheringham), Sope Dirisu (Donald), Olivia Colman (Mrs Niven), Colin Firth (Mr Niven), Glenda Jackson (Older Jane Fairchild), Patsy Ferran (Milly), Emma D’Arcy (Emma Hobday)
Based on an award-winning novel by Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday is mostly set on a single day: March 30th 1924. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is the maid of the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), both of whose sons died in the Great War. The only surviving son of their close social circle is Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), who has been conducting a secret sexual affair with Jane for several years. On this fateful day, Paul sneaks away from his fiancée (who was originally to marry the Nivens’ deceased son, James) for a tryst with Jane. The tragic after-effects will shape Jane’s future life. This is intercut throughout the film as she deals with the illness years later of her lover, philosopher Donald (Sope Dirisu).
Mothering Sunday is a proud, in fact a little too proud, art-house film. It takes an intricate, well structured and delicate novel by Swift and piles on the technique to try and wring as much meaning from the piece as possible. In doing so, Husson drowns a simple story in cinematic tools. Skilful cutting, intriguing shots, rich layered music, artful compositions, juddering intercutting between timelines, repeated shots and symbolic compositions eventually give an impression of a film trying too hard to impress.
It’s a story that would have carried a world more impact if it had been told with simple directness, where stylistic flourishes felt natural rather than exploited at every conceivable opportunity. Instead of moving though, the film eventually becomes tiring and the pointed dynamism of the film’s making gets in the way of the emotion. As we are cut away from moments of emotion, or the dialogue tries too hard to capture the complexity of Swift’s writing (as my wife put it, “there is a lot of talk about jizz”), we are constantly prevented from encountering the quiet emotion and unspoken devastation that should be at the heart of this simple-but-shattering story.
Even when Olivia Colman’s character – in her only real scene – is heart-rendingly confessing her pain at the loss of her children and her envy of Jane for her orphan status (she has no one to lose), Husson’s camera seems at least as interested in making you admire the fiddily mirror-based tracking shot she is using to shoot it. It is far more impactful and graceful when it sits still: for example moments like Colin Firth’s well judged performance of deeply repressed grief and pain, which expresses itself in very British banalities about the weather and doing-the-decent-thing.
Which isn’t to say that Mothering Sunday is a bad film, or that there aren’t moments of deeply impressive film-making. A dashboard-mounted camera that follows Jane’s disguised torment as she is driven to the scene of disaster is memorable, and there are beautiful shots like an aerial shot lingering over a fire in a forest that haunt the imagination. The film has a haunting quality to it, like a half-memory that flits from clear picture to clear picture via hazy recollection. But all this style swamps the impact. The film never has the patience to sit down and let us get involved in its story properly. Or really tackle how lasting the impact of loss – particularly the generational loss of the 1910s – had on families and, by extension, the whole country.
Mothering Sunday’s main successful feature is the hugely impressive performance from Australian actress Odessa Young. Not only is her accent faultless, but Young has a poetic romanticism in here that sits equally alongside an old soul within a young body. Much of the film is dependent on her micro-reactions to moments of life-changing sorrow and joy. She spends a large chunk of the film naked (as required by the source material – although this is also another tiresome sign of the film’s overly proud ‘arthouse’ badge) – but imbues this with a bohemian freeness that suggests it’s the only time, released from the shackles of her work clothes, that she feels truly free. She carries almost the whole film and does so with a consummate, compelling ease.
There are fine performances as well from Josh O’Connor – channelling Prince Charles somewhat – as a conflicted man, crushed by the burden of carrying the expectations for a whole generation, and Sope Dirisu (in a rather thankless role) as Jane’s later philosopher lover. Glenda Jackson contributes a neat cameo as a Doris Lessing-like older Jane, now a hugely successful novelist, reacting just like she did to the winning of the “major international prize” for literature.
But the overall film never quite manages to carry the impact it should. It should leave you consumed with the sadness and waste of early death and the destruction that comes from war. Instead, you will remember more the pyrotechnical invention of its making – and the wonderful score by Morgan Kibby – rather than any heart or sense of tragedy.