Mothering Sunday (4 stars)

Mothering Sunday

Psychologically rich period drama starring Odessa Young, Olivia Colman and Colin Firth

French director Eva Husson brings just a touch of her provocative 2015 film Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story to the British period drama and it's all the better for it. Based on the acclaimed novel by Graham Swift, with a screenplay by Normal People and Lady Macbeth's Alice Birch, it's a psychologically rich study of all-consuming grief and insufferable expectations that also features the most-classy of casts, with Olivia Colman, Colin Firth and Josh O'Connor featuring, and the rising Australian star of Shirley, Odessa Young, heading things up.

The story begins on the day in question in 1924. Young plays Jane Fairchild, the orphaned maid of the Nivens (played by Colman and Firth), who have lost both their sons in the war. The pair are marking this now sad day with similarly bereaved friends the Sheringhams, who have buried two of their three sons and have pinned all their hopes on Paul (O'Connor), who has found himself engaged to his dead brother's girlfriend, with a career in law expected of him. Paul and Jane have long been romantically entangled, but with his wedding now imminent that seems set to end.

It's a film that really wants the audience to know its characters, as Jamie Ramsay's probing and frequently striking cinematography takes us behind their various facades: the quiet, uninquisitive obedience required of a maid is contrasted with Jane's intellectual curiosity and the sexual liberation she finds in her relationship with Paul, and in scenes where she walks the corridors of his parents' vast, temporarily deserted mansion hair hanging loose and completely starkers, the impact bolstered by courageous, credible and discreetly moving work from Young. There's a typically fine turn from Colman, too, as the bitterly unhappy Mrs Niven, who struggles to maintain the stiff upper lip expected of her after being eaten up by grief, and whose resentment at her lot manifests itself in an apparent hatred of her genial but also discernibly devastated husband.

There's an arguable overabundance of misery and tragedy in Mothering Sunday, but it's all very convincingly portrayed. However, sporadically skipping forward in time is an unnecessary distraction, in a move that recalls the less impressive recent release The Last Letter From Your Lover. The great Sope Dirisu (Gangs Of London, His House) doesn't have much to do here, while Glenda Jackson's scenes really are tacked on. Keeping us immersed in its very compelling and freshly rendered portrait of upstairs-downstairs lifestyles and attitudes would have been much better.

Available to watch in cinemas from Friday 12 November.

Mothering Sunday

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • UK
  • 1h 44min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Eva Husson
  • Cast: Odessa Young, Josh O'Connor, Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Sope Dirisu, Glenda Jackson

"Screenwriter Alice Birch (Normal People, Lady Macbeth) and director Eva Husson (Bang Gang, Girls of the Sun) prove the perfect creative duo bringing rich sensuality to this film starting Olivia Colman, Josh O’Connor and Colin Firth. Henley, in the mid-1920s, young maid Jane (Young) works for the Nivens, one of several…