Reel Reviews | Mothering Sunday (TIFF ’21)

by Kate Erbland | IndieWire

When Eva Husson’s lush, aching period drama opens, World War I has been over for more than five years. Textbook history suggests that its end kickstarted all the fun and frisk of the Roaring Twenties, but “Mothering Sunday” handily dispels that myth. It’s 1924 and, as the world moves on, a trio of bereaved families in the UK’s Berkshire County do their damnedest to pretend that they are, too. Hyper-observant orphan maid Jane Fairchild (a luminous Odessa Young) is about to embark on the rare day off, the “Mothering Sunday” of the film’s title — March 30, 1924, to be precise.

Adapted from Graham Swift’s delicate novel of the same name, Husson sets her film mostly within that one, luminous early spring day. Alice Birch’s script adheres to Swift’s kaleidoscopic shifting settings, moving between Mothering Sunday and two later periods in Jane’s remarkable life. Some viewers might feel a sense of whiplash as the filmmaker slides between time and place at whim, but the strength of the film’s emotion and talented cast (Young is joined by a murderer’s row of stars, including Josh O’Connor, Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, and Emma D’Arcy) help ground it. The grand lesson that “Mothering Sunday” teaches, and the one Jane must learn, tragedy after tragedy: None of this, the pleasure or the pain, is ever permanent.

That gamble does not always pay off and Husson (“Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story”) often strips her film of its immense pleasures by cutting short key scenes and lingering on others that feel less vital. As Jane remembers her own life — and lives through it again and again — why not let us savor both the good and bad, to linger on the story of a woman who overcame so much and took the craziest of bets: to love, and to keep loving.

“Once upon a time,” the film opens in haunting voiceover, “before the boys were killed,” lived a happy trio of Berkshire “clans” woven together by affection and common concerns. Paul (O’Connor) is the remaining Sheringham son, and while that has not robbed him of his kind countenance, there is a brittleness that is hard to shake. Paul is engaged to the only other remaining child from the trio of families, Emma Hobday (D’Arcy), who was once almost engaged to James Niven, the now-deceased son of Mr. and Mrs. Nivens (Firth and Colman) who employ young Jane. Like Paul, they are kind, if removed, and Jane’s job in their quiet home seems to be fine enough.

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