“Mothering Sunday” is a quiet, slow sensual adaptation from the Graham Swift romantic novella of the same name. While all of the above descriptors may work for the book format and serve as a welcome diversion from most of its intense and frenetic movie counterparts currently available, others may find that the pace is too slow, bordering close to outright dormant. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is a single young maid at a house in the English countryside, post World War I. She is attractive, seemingly demure, and resigned to the cultural and professional limitations imposed by the era. Because of the time period and location, the story, unsurprisingly, includes a fair dose of British manners and classism. Jane’s employers are an older couple, Godfrey and Clarrie Niven, played effectively by Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman. Theirs is a strained relationship, sadly bogged down with years of grief after the loss of their son. This mostly manifests between awkward silences and in the case during one pivotal scene, a loud emotional outburst on the part of Clarrie. While both have relatively few lines, especially Coleman, their ability to take any part to superior heights is on full display here through facial expressions and body language … especially Coleman.
In between the routines of the couple’s days, puttering about the house and socializing with neighbors, there is Jane holding down the chores and minding after her employers. Often on Jane’s days off, she spends it with her long-time lover, Paul (Josh O’Connor) at his family’s manor nearby. Because of the class difference, theirs is a secret affair, with no marriage remotely possible. They both are aware of that fact, as too Jane is aware that Paul is actually engaged. Passion, classism and grief all come crashing together on one particular hot spring day-“Mothering Sunday”-when the Niven’s meet up with friends that includes Paul’s family and fiancé at a community park for a luncheon celebration. While they are all there and with the promise to come a bit later, Paul has stayed behind to get in time with Jane.
Director, Eva Husson, films this pivotal scene/sexual encounter as a crescendo, with long, lingering close-up shots on them individually and together. At these rare and wonderful times the two have together alone, they strip away societal norms and expectation, giving wholly to their passion. Like the couple, Husson is unabashed in showing their sexual delights, questions and experimentations. She mixes it with scenes from the families’ luncheon full of a combination of a festivities and building tensions; conversations and outbursts. Also included are flashback scenes as well as a glimpse into Jane’s future as a much stronger, independent woman and accomplished writer, living openly with a man she loves and sees as her intellectual equal. When Paul finally leaves the manor and his lover, every character and the audience encounter the story’s jarring twist that will eventually take Jane to the depths of loss she cannot express, as well to eventual new dreams and endeavors.
“Mothering Sunday” is as much about grief and a sense of hopelessness as it is about love and sex, and hope for the future. But it is an achingly sparse movie, maybe too much so as often is the case when adapting novellas as feature length films. While each key performance is impressive, and the photography is compelling, the adaptation and overall movie is somewhat underwhelming.