TIFF Review – Mothering Sunday
Mothering Sunday (2021), while an odd title, is based on a novel of the same name by Graham Swift. It is centered around the events of Mother’s Day in March 1924 and a maid named Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young). Mothering Sunday (directed by Eva Husson, script by Alice Birch) is a dramatic romance and a story about maturity and the events that remarkably affect how Jane observes her life in stages.
The film’s setting is post-WWI in the English countryside where families still inhabit large manor homes and thus have a staff to run them and take care of its inhabitants. Jane works for one such family, The Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), who lost their children in the war. Mr. Nivens is friendly and caring towards Jane, quiet and reserved in his own way, but the kind of man who would never lose his temper. Mrs. Nivens, on the other hand, wears her grief on her sleeve and has a short fuse when it comes to troubling, over-sentimental conversations. She is more perturbed with her husband’s demeanor. Jane and her fellow staff member, Milly (Patsy Ferran), are given the rest of the day off due to it being Mother’s Day, and the couple has plans elsewhere.
What lies ahead in this film is the discovery of a long-standing relationship between Jane and Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor). Paul is the son of The Nivens’ friends. As with many secret relationships portrayed in this time period, Paul was unattached, but his family’s expectations and stature would have made a legitimate relationship with Jane impossible. Now Paul is engaged to his deceased friend’s girlfriend, Emma (Emma D’Arcy), and Jane and Paul’s romance has become an affair with a wedding in less than two weeks. As the film progresses, we learn that Jane has been in this relationship with Paul for many years, having met soon after starting at the Nivens. What sets this film apart from others in the same vein is the matter-of-factness of Jane’s perception of Paul. She is not unrealistically looking to get married or have this relationship exposed. She knows her station and accepts what Paul has to do. While she is not happy about added complexity to continue to see each other, she never shows any sort of exposed emotion that she will break down and become devastated at what Paul will do. Jane stares blankly in the distance, tuning out the further musings of Paul.
The scenes with Jane and Paul are beautiful, weightless in their moments of love. A large portion of the film takes place in Paul’s bedroom, with both Paul and Jane being fully naked for most of it. Between moments of love-making, they ponder their lives while maintaining contact with each other, bathed in the spring sunlight from the large windows. Jane especially has moments of Botticelli-esque beauty with her long hair cascading down her back and her youth so evident on her face and body. As with all forbidden relationships, the meetings have a finite length; today’s longer than usual due to Mother’s Day. As Paul leaves Jane in her nakedness to join The Nivens, his family, fiancée, and others for lunch, she is allowed to stay and inhabit a home and lifestyle that will never be hers for a few hours. Roaming the house in all her nakedness, she imagines what it would be like to live in such a place, having a life of leisure rather than one of service.
Interjected with a seemingly perfect day for Jane are flash-forwards in time and one flash-back to where we see that Jane is an aspiring writer. Initially, these flashes are a bit quizzical as you figure out what has happened and what year each may be in. With at least the flash-back, a newspaper with a year on it informs the viewer. The others use makeup and hair adjustments/wigs to show the progression of time even if the audience doesn’t get a specific year. Jane is no longer in service or with Paul. However, the path that put her in her current life is still unknown. What we do see is the development of another relationship with Donald (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), a philosopher who does only good things for Jane’s future.
There is much to delve into beneath the surface of these characters. While Jane’s life is certainly not ideal, the last conversation with Mrs. Nivens is particularly poignant and the most powerful scene in the film. Jane is an orphan, never adopted. Mrs. Nivens, in her constant state of sorrow, points out that Jane is lucky that she will never have to experience the loss of family. She has no ties or connections to anyone; she has nothing to lose. The emotions are laid bare on Mrs. Nivens’ face, and her not knowing Jane’s relationship with Paul is both heartbreaking and naïve. Sadness is a state of being for Mrs. Nivens, so much so that she envies those she perceives as having no ties to anyone.
Jane Fairchild is a strong character, borne of unfortunate circumstances, yet she triumphs among the tragedies to become someone nobody of her station could ever hope to achieve. She does take some of Mrs. Nivens’ words to heart, even though not all of it rings true to Jane, and takes the initiative to create a better life for herself. That Mother’s Day in 1924 was a catalyst for the woman she would become, and even through her own future tragedies, she takes what she can among the pieces left behind to move forward and become the woman she never dreamed of being. The only issues with the film are the non-linear structure of the film taking some time to adjust to, and the relationships between the supporting characters are not as straightforward as they could be. Nevertheless, Mothering Sunday is a beautiful testament to growth, strength, youth, and love that could never be.