TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Imagine an episode of Downton Abbey with the romance cranked up, only one plotline, and padded out with dreamy, ethereal sequences. Now, you have a pretty good idea of what Mothering Sunday is all about. It’s 1924, and Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is a maid in the Niven household in Berkshire County, UK. The community’s struggling with the loss of so many young men in the aftermath of World War I. Mr. and Mrs. Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman) are barely keeping up appearances as they await their daughter’s pending engagement to one of the few eligible bachelors, the charming, seemingly carefree Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor). The complication is that unknown to almost everyone, Paul is having an affair with Jane.
Directed by Eva Husson and written by Alice Birch and Graham Swift, the bulk of the film shows Jane’s affair as a young woman with Paul, almost like it’s a fairy tale, with slow-motion shots of galloping horses and lingering post-coital scenes in majestic bedrooms. The rest is mostly her decades later, now an established writer and married to a philosopher, Donald (Sope Dirisu). She’s writing a book about her formative experiences, some of which she’s never told her husband.
Where Mothering Sunday works is in the 1924 timeframe, even though most of the characters are somewhat thinly drawn archetypes. Through the strength of the acting and foreknowledge of the expected roles in English countryside manors from every romance novel ever, this timeline proves engaging. Firth has graduated from the object of lust in these affairs to the father figure, a role for which he’s equally well suited. Colman doesn’t have all that many scenes, but she kills in each of them. She plays a mother just barely getting by, exuding stone-cold stoicism until she just can’t anymore. Fans of The Crown will also recognize the love interest here, Josh O’Connor, who played Prince Charles in the latest season. Here he gets to play a somewhat less deep but at least more carefree, likable character.
“…unknown to almost everyone, Paul is having an affair with Jane.”
But the real star of the show is Odessa Young, who is phenomenal as young Jane. She’s captivating to watch, at once innocent and worldly. She’s swept up in a seemingly doomed fairy tale with players who effectively control her fate, yet she manages not to be a victim. In addition, Young spends a remarkable amount of time naked. That may seem exploitative in the hands of a lesser director, but it fits with the vibe that Husson (Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story) has rendered.
The glimpses into later episodes of Jane’s life don’t work quite as well. The romance of the period is gone. The scenes mostly are to establish that she’s a writer having difficulty. And the chemistry just isn’t there. The main problem is that these scenes build up slowly and effectively have to pay off at the end of Mothering Sunday. It just isn’t that satisfying when the main story has already wrapped up. It is worth noting that that film itself is based on a 2016 novel by Graham Swift, so there’s a bit of a “writer writing about writing” thing going on.
Another problem with Mothering Sunday is the pacing. The 1924 story is interesting enough, but it just feels padded and stretched. Shots trying to set a mood go on for far too long. Meanwhile, some of the most interesting characters get the short shrift. Still, there’s enough here to recommend the film for fans of the genre. If you’re desperate for a fix of something that could be a lost subplot from Downton Abbey, or you can’t get enough of Colin Firth or Olivia Colman (and who can), it is worth a shot. That may be what draws you in, but the thing that will stick with you is the outstanding performance by Odessa Young.
Mothering Sunday screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
"…Odessa Young...is phenomenal..."