Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) grew up in an orphanage and was turned out at the age of 14 and pressed into a life of service. She works as a maid in post-WW1 England for the Nivens (Olivia Colman & Colin Firth), who lost both sons in the war. Their dearest friends the Sheringhams also lost two sons in the war but have one remaining – Paul (Josh O’Connor). All 5 boys grew up together and were quite close. The Nivens have come to think of Paul as a little bit theirs.
Jane, too, has come to think of Paul as a little bit hers because they’re having secret sex at every opportunity, which are admittedly few. In addition to the upstairs-downstairs wrinkle, there’s also the small problem of Paul’s being engaged to marry (someone else). He’s actually engaged to a woman who was meant to become the Nivens’ daughter-in-law, but now goes to Paul, by default. As you can imagine, it’s not the most romantic of engagements, but he considers it his duty as sole survivor to do what the others cannot.
The movie looks gorgeous, of course. This is what British cinema does best. But it’s also completely morose, unrelentingly gloomy, and unforgivably languid. Grief and loss shimmer insistently in the corners, but the British propensity for a stiff upper lip prevails, and all these grief-stricken parents do their best to muddle on in their big empty homes that feel more like memorials.
Traditionally, before mother’s day, mothering Sunday was a day off you gave the servants to go visit their mums. The title used here makes us painfully aware of so many sad circumstances. What is a mother when all her children are dead? And what is a daughter when her unknown mother gave her up? In her fog of despair, Mrs. Niven tells Jane how lucky she is to have been “born bereaved;” with no parents or family to lose, Jane will never know the pain of their loss. Being motherless is a gift, so says a woman drowning in grief and cynicism, Jane is free because she has no-one to care about. It’s both true and not true (not to mention a pretty awful thing to say, though we’ll forgive her because she’s completely heart broken but trying plenty hard not to let the mask slip). Jane has no mother to visit on Mothering Sunday, but that leaves her free for a fuckfest with her lover. And though Paul’s just a fortnight away from marrying (this is likely their last encounter), their time together isn’t tinged with sadness. They linger over each other with fondness, naked and unafraid. But Jane isn’t going to find a happily ever after here (nor, for that matter, is Paul). At most, suggests a future Jane, played brilliantly if briefly by Glenda Jackson, it is fodder for a brilliant writing career.
Unfortunately, the film lingers over literally everything, and though there are some brilliant bits, they are too few and too far between to really gather momentum or build emotion. The whole thing comes off as rather cold, an old woman’s memory of a torrid love affair that’s lost its heat.
Mothering Sunday is an official selection of TIFF 2021.