In the lead up to the festive season, almost nothing feels as cosy as a trip to see a romantic period drama. And new film Mothering Sunday – starring Josh O’Connor, Odessa Young, Olivia Colman, Colin Firth and Glenda Jackson – is just the ticket.
Based on novelist Graham Swift’s 2016 book, the film traverses the 20th century as it follows the life of Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young). With events mostly taking place on Mother’s Day 1924, 22-year-old orphan Jane is a housemaid for wealthy couple, the Nivens. It’s an unseasonably warm spring day and Jane – along with the household cook – is suddenly given the afternoon off. But what is Jane meant to do with her free time when she has no one to visit? Thankfully a mysterious phone call comes to her aid.
While three neighbouring families – the Nivens, the Sheringhams and the Hobdays – meet by the banks of the Thames for a picnic in honour of the upcoming marriage of two of their children, Jane pushes an old bicycle out of the estate. It doesn’t take long to discover she is, in fact, meeting Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor) – the son who is due to be married – with whom she’s been having a years-long relationship behind closed doors. Despite their deep feelings for one another, he will be forced to marry Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy), a woman more befitting his social status. The time has come to end the affair, but events unfold in ways Jane and Paul could never have predicted.
Like the novel, the film flits between that one momentous day in Jane’s life and the years ahead – when she takes their secret meeting that afternoon to the grave. Not long after the events of Mothering Sunday, Jane leaves the Nivens to become a sales assistant in a bookshop in Oxford. Having spent years raiding the Nivens’ library, she longs to become a writer and soon meets philosopher Donald (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), who later becomes her husband. In these scenes, Young is made up to look in her 30s, 40s and beyond – and does so convincingly. Much later in life – and now a multiple-prize-winning author – Jane is played by masterful British actor Glenda Jackson, who shines in her few scenes. The use of both is excellent, and the two actors’ mannerisms mirror one another perfectly. The result is an insight into a life truly lived – despite the setbacks of Jane’s childhood and the formative, life-altering experiences many would be defined by – and an emotionally packed film.
Much of the film’s passion is captured in the tiny details and often in what’s left unsaid. This might be because the novel was adapted for the screen by Alice Birch, the British playwright who wrote the script for the phenomenally successful TV adaptation of Normal People and the Florence Pugh-starring Lady Macbeth. She’s since gone on to win awards for her work in the writers’ room for series two of Succession. Like Normal People, much of the central characters’ personalities are exposed – quite literally in O’Connor’s case – during the sex scenes. But for all the nudity, the pair’s interactions, sexual or otherwise, never feel gratuitous, rather they’re surprising, tender and deeply moving.
The film is also outstanding in the way it explores grief in all its many manifestations. Centrally, the three families only have one son left between them – the others were all killed in World War I and the loss looms large: who wants to celebrate Mother’s Day when you’ve got no children left? The Nivens deal with the death of their sons in different ways: Firth’s Mr Niven is wilfully optimistic and chatters incessantly about the weather; as Mrs Niven, a brilliantly stoic Colman quietly bubbles with anger. Then there’s the fact Emma was betrothed to the Nivens’ son James and instead she’s been matched with the group’s last remaining son – and there’s clearly zero chemistry between them. This, coupled with Paul’s absence at the riverside picnic, makes for an explosive and moving scene that really does Swift’s novel justice.
Across the board, the acting is excellent. Seasoned period drama pros Firth and Colman are on first-rate form, and O’Connor – perhaps most famous for playing Prince Charles in the last two series of The Crown – plays a buttoned-up aristocrat to a tee. We really loved the scenes between Donald and Jane, especially when the pair are trying to find their feet as a couple and in their careers. But it’s Young who impresses most, confidently playing both the childlike, inquisitive Jane and the older, steelier writer. She’s currently filming The Staircase, a TV adaptation of the BBC/Netflix hit true crime documentary – which, if Mothering Sunday is anything to go by, will be brilliant too.
Mothering Sunday is in cinemas now.