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Mothering Sunday: Human Connection Stripped Down

Sophie Norton explores Eva Husson's deconstruction of British prudishness

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Image Credit: Lionsgate UK

The film’s trailer anticipates a period drama that revolves around an illicit affair between a rich young estate-owner and a parentless maid. While that is what Mothering Sunday delivers, this adaptation of Graham Swift’s 2016 novel of the same name is slower than expected. It is a lamentation on love, loss, and life from either side of the class divide in 1920s rural Britain. The opening shots are intimately close. We hear a male voice recounting a childhood anecdote, while the camera focuses on the saliva between his lips, the angular cut of his teeth, and his smile at the fondness of memories now past. More shots follow suit, zooming in close enough to detect dust, and keeping the temporal and spatial settings ambiguous.

Mothering Sunday is the work of Eva Husson, a French actress, director, and screenwriter who directed her first feature film Bang Gang in 2015, which competed at the Toronto Film Festival. Working with a screenplay by Alice Birch, Husson portrays human connection through sex, grief, and loss. The filming is elegant, with the occasional shots dipping in and out of focus in a lazy haze, often lingering on objects from the gorgeous film sets.

With Josh O’Connor and Odessa Young cast as the young protagonists, and performances from Colin Firth and Olivia Colman, you know there’s going to be some quality acting. O’Connor has appeared in his fair share of dramas and is well-known for his portrayal of Prince Charles in The Crown, also alongside Olivia Colman. This followed his 2017 role of Johnny Saxby in God’s Own Country, which saw him receive accolades including the BAFTA Rising Star Award.

A couple of years prior, actress Odessa Young was dubbed “Australia’s brightest rising star” in 2015 by Elle Magazine and has since won awards for her work, which includes roles in the web series High Life, and 2015 Australian drama The Daughter. She was named one of Vogue’s six actors to watch in 2021, and her vulnerable performance in Mothering Sunday will surely be a turning point in her career.

The film’s central action takes place on a singular day; Mothering Sunday of 1924, if you hadn’t guessed by the title. Clipped accents and stony, stoic expressions reveal that this is as stereotypically British as it gets, complete with tea served in dainty saucers, and repressed emotion at the dinner table. There is some temporal movement, with an older Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) recounting the events of that Sunday as a grown woman, and making a brief appearance as an elderly lady - keeping the story in a self-contained lifetime narrative. Despite this, the script begins and lingers on this singular 24 hours. Jane works as a maid for the Niven household (Colman and Firth) and is given the day to spend as she pleases, unable to visit her nonexistent family as the other characters do. She engages in an affair with a young man from a rich neighbouring estate, who is due to marry a close friend of the Nivens. Their relationship appears to be an ongoing secret.

Husson demonstrates intimacy in a way that goes against the classic British stereotype, with the full-frontal nudity that both Young and O’Connor engage in. Their naked bodies are presented as beautiful rather than sexualised, and Husson attributes this to her European upbringing and the attitude she grew up with that framed nudity as natural. A favourite scene from the film is Jane wandering around a country house leisurely and peacefully, fully nude. The absence of clothing doesn’t bother her as she admires the artwork, tracing her fingers along shelves in the leather-bound library, and imitates her lover’s activities by smoking a cigarette at his desk and eating food left out in the kitchen with a fork. Her nudity is vulnerable in a naive sense, but without her maid's uniform, Jane is allowed to be a person existing in the moment, free from her life’s usual constraints.

The last few years have seen an exquisite release of period adaptations and dramas in cinemas, and Mothering Sunday is no exception. The lesson we can gauge from this is that humanity isn’t exclusive, and can be portrayed in the most explicit and fundamental means. A truly beautiful film that will leave you feeling melancholy but grateful for the people around you. For a period film, Mothering Sunday is raw, real, and unforgiving to its characters. As Husson elegantly puts it, “no matter how much money you have, life hammers you.”

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