Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley Director: Eva Husson Screenplay: Alice Birch Cast: Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Sope Dirisu, Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, Glenda Jackson, Patsy Ferran, Charley Oscar, Emma D’Arcy, Simon Shepherd, Caroline Harker, Craig Crosbie and Emily Woof Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Graham Swift’s 2016 novella was well received, but though this adaptation of it by Alice Birch and Eva Husson is respectful of its artistic ambition and faithful to its style and mood, Swift’s tale comes off on the screen as stilted and affected. Despite a committed cast and an elegant production, “Mothering Sunday” is one of those films you might respect but are likely to remain unmoved by.
The overriding emotion is grief, and the main character is Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), a trusted housemaid in the estate of the well-to-do Godfrey and Clarrie Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman). The time is 1924, March 30 to be precise, on which Mothering Sunday falls, which in medieval times was when people visited the church where they’d been baptized (their “mother church”) but by the twentieth century was becoming a day on which mothers generally were celebrated; employers often gave their servants the day off to visit their families.
That’s the case in the Niven household: both Jane and her colleague Milly (Patsy Ferran), the kitchen maid, are freed of their duties, and bicycling from the house, they fulfill the day’s original purpose by stopping to admire the village church. But from there Milly is off to see her mother, while Jane—a foundling who does not know hers—has a different destination: the nearby Sheringham estate.
For years she has been having an affair with Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), the sole surviving son of parents (Emily Woolf and Craig Crosbie) whose older boys died in the French trenches, as did the Nivens’ sons. Paul is engaged to Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy), and will be joining her and her parents (Simon Shepherd and Caroline Harker), along with the Nivenses and Sheringhams, for lunch. Paul, left aloe I the mansion, has time for one last morning with Jane before he drives to the meal. They have a passionate session in his bedroom before he leaves. She remains there for a while, walking about the house still nude from their encounter. Then she departs, only to encounter Mr. Nivens, who returns with terrible news.
The day has a lasting impact on the rest of Jane’s life, both on her relationship with a loving and supportive young man (Sope Dirisu) she meets at the bookshop where she works after leaving service, and on her career; she takes up writing, which eventually brings her great renown (she’s played briefly in old age by Glenda Jackson).
From a surface perspective there’s a “Masterpiece Theatre” feel to “Mothering Sunday.” It’s visually elegant, set in lovely locations, with a production design by Helen Scott and costumes by Sandy Powell that capture the period and soothe the eye, and boasts luscious cinematography by Jamie Ramsay. (It must be said, though, that it boasts a considerable amount of nudity in the bedroom sequence and afterward, as Jane wanders about the otherwise empty Sheringham mansion au naturel, which PBS would probably not countenance.) Emilie Orsinit’s stately editing is of a piece with the overall mood.
“Mothering Sunday” is, on the one hand, a portrait of a society brutally transformed. The Nivens and Sheringhams have been devastated by the loss of their sons, as the performances of Firth, genteel but uncertain, and especially Colman, always on the edge of emotional collapse, convey. Their class is also economically devastated: Paul is marrying Emma, a sullen, angry girl from what we see of her, not for love but money. And the suspicion is that he cannot bear the thought of it.
Bu it’s also a story of a girl struggling to rise from literally nothing—a blank slate—to eminence in this altered society, using the memories of her early life and immersion in the culture the Nivens and Sheringhams represented (Mr. Nevins gives her access to his books, and in her investigation of the Sheringham house she is drawn irresistibly to its library) to achieve it. Yet the climb requires dealing with tragedy, not one but twice.
Swift was able to suggest the nuances of this story with grace and quiet eloquence; Birch and Husson are unable to do so on screen, despite the dedication they bring to the task. One problem is that while the older actors, particularly Firth and to a lesser extent Colman (despite having to portray a character who has only one basic dimension) bring subtlety to their performances, the younger ones prove rather bland and faceless. Young and O’Connor come across and studied, almost artificial, even in their bedroom tryst; and while Young loosens up in the later section of the narrative, especially in her interplay with the ingratiating Dirisu, it’s rather late. Jackson, of course, is a joy in her few scenes, adding a touch of impish humor to her disdain of the honors heaped upon Jane as an elderly icon. Overall, however, the film feels oddly drab from a dramatic perspective, despite its opulent appearance. Rob Moore’s score, with its busy strings and tinkling percussion, works hard to fill in the emotional gaps, but its insistence instead grows annoying.
“Morning Sunday” works diligently to bring the special qualities of Swift’s book to the screen. In the end, however, it doesn’t succeed.