By Jocelyne Noveck | Associated press
The story is factual. The story is chronological. The story is linear. But memory? Memory is none of that.
Memory is selective, memory is mixed, memory travels in different directions. The same goes for “Mothering Sunday,” Eva Husson’s touching and visually pleasing – albeit languorous – meditation on love and loss, based on one woman’s recollection of a landmark day that reverberates on his long life.
At first, the jumps between time periods – from the post-war 20s to the 40s to the 80s – may seem shocking. Soon, however, Husson makes us realize that this is how memory works, and that rhythm has meaning.
But “Mothering Sunday,” based on the 2016 short story by Graham Swift and ably adapted by Alice Birch, isn’t just a matter of memory. It is also about war – namely the First World War and the devastation it brought to countless villages like the English here, which lost a whole generation of sons.
It’s also about love and sex, and also about class – the indelible line that separates our two lovers, played with true intimacy by Odessa Young and fresh-faced, pensive Josh O’Connor, far removed from his Prince Charles repressed in “The Crown.” For the bracing intimacy – and unapologetic nudity – we can thank director Husson, who brings her very French and sexually candid approach to the stuffy British upper class.
But perhaps most moving, “Mothering Sunday” is about grief, etched indelibly on the faces of parents who have lost children. You’ve never seen a sadder or more desperate Colin Firth, as a father who tries to chase his grief away with hopeless fake joy. These efforts do nothing to help Olivia Colman’s wife, Clarrie, a once vivacious woman who has inhabited a bitter shell since the death of their two sons in the trenches. Clarrie has few lines but utters them with a contained agony you won’t soon forget.
If this couple weren’t enough of the dream cast, we have none other than Glenda Jackson, playing the older character of protagonist Jane Fairchild, half a century in the future. But more on that in a moment.
Most of the action takes place in 1924, one spring day in a pretty village where three families have been lifelong friends. Jane (Young), housekeeper at the Niven household, serves breakfast as her employers (Firth and Colman) offer her a day off. It’s Mother’s Day, that is, Mother’s Day, but Jane is an orphan. So she sets off on her bicycle to meet her secret lover, law student Paul Sheringham, the only one of the five boys, among the three families, to have survived the war.
Their love, of course, is forbidden. Jane even had to attend her longtime lover’s engagement to the daughter of the Third Family (while serving them dinner, no less). The wedding is approaching and this Sunday, families gather by the river to celebrate. But first Paul makes passionate love to Jane, then leaves her to explore the large family home naked, a liberating moment that sees her running her fingers along the books in the library – a clue to her future as a writer.
It’s not a happy lunch, however, and not just because of a shocking event that’s about to happen. When Godfrey (Firth) tries to give a happy toast, Colman’s Clarrie bursts in, giving a poignant voice to the ongoing pain they all feel.
These 1924 scenes are alternated with expansive scenes from the 1940s, with a now older (still young) Jane writing and working in a bookstore. There, she meets her new love, Donald (Sopé Dìrísù), as they connect over philosophy. Sandy Powell’s wonderful costumes range from meticulously crafted 20s dresses to a chic 40s belted coat that Jane wears with a stylish beret.
What we fail to understand is what kind of writer Jane is becoming. There’s no voice-over narration, so we only hear a few words here and there, spoken by Jane in dreamlike memories.
This discrepancy becomes even more noticeable in the final chapter, when Jackson appears only too briefly on screen. Old Jane has just won a major literary prize. “I’ve won all the prizes,” she says wearily to the press waiting outside, wondering what more to say. “Each.”
It would be nice to know more about the brilliant writer that Jane has become. We get a nice visual connection between the two Janes, eyes meeting over the decades. What are they thinking?
As with most movies, it’s something that looks great, but just stays a bit out of reach.
2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity and some language)
Operating time: 104 minutes