Working at the box office of an independently owned arthouse cinema gives you insight to a lot of things, mostly that not many people want to come to the movies anymore, which is a damn shame. However, there are still a number of “safe bets” that come with these types of theaters, particularly for the Anglophile audiences. Next month, we’ll be hosting the premiere of Focus Features’s highly-anticipated Downton Abbey: A New Era, or as I like to call it Geriatric Avengers. Everyone from the ripe age of 50 to age 100 will drive out in droves for the continuation and exploration of the PBS Masterpiece universe. Until then, there are some consolations to hold the period drama crowd over — they could delve into the salacious muchness of Netflix’s Bridgerton season 2, or HBO’s American costume melodrama The Gilded Age, or for a more cinematic, restrained take, they have Sony Pictures Classics’s Mothering Sunday, a festival favorite from French filmmaker Eva Husson.
But that begs the question: What does Mothering Sunday offer a more sophisticated audience in the theater vs. something they could watch at home? I can’t say much, at least in the grand scheme of things.
Set across three time periods, Mothering Sunday follows Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), a young maid working in the moderately wealthy home of the Nivens, Godfrey (Colin Firth) and Clarrie (Olivia Colman), who are grieving the losses of their sons in the Great War which ended six years earlier. On Mother’s Day 1924, Jane is granted a day off and spends it in a passionate tryst with Niven family friend, and otherwise betrothed, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor). Meanwhile, a slightly older Jane recounts her passionate affair to her husband, Donald (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), as she writes her first novel, while an elderly Jane (Glenda Jackson) recounts the great loves of her life introspectively in the late 20th century.
While it all sounds so grand and wide-spanning on paper, Mothering Sunday is a very restrained, intimate drama that oozes sensuality and dry British beauty in a way one would hope to get from a film such as this. The issue with Mothering Sunday doesn’t lie with what is objectively told to the audience in its story or how the film is crafted as a whole, that’s all expertly crafted, but Mothering Sunday suffers heavily from an unclear narrative brought down heavily by the film’s wildly inconsistent editing and pacing.
I think of something like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women when I think of ways that a straightforward drama can unfold with concurrently presented timelines and it coming together to create something cohesive and surprisingly effective as a method of unconventional storytelling to something that could’ve easily been taken on as a conventional film. I think Mothering Sunday has that same passion to want to unfold the film concurrently with its timelines, but where it falters is the order in which the film plays out. Instead of presenting three timelines that play out in their respective successions, the film jumps back and forth to different places on each respective story with sometimes little to go off of what stage of said story the current scene exists in. This is particularly seen with Jane’s relationship to her husband Donald. We join the couple’s story well into their marriage, but then, later in the film, jump back to how they met, but with little showing that we’ve actually moved back in time as opposed to having continued the story previously touched upon. This, when put into play with the other two storylines also playing out in the same fashion, begins to make Mothering Sunday feel like Memento (2013) more than Upstairs Downstairs (1971).
And I’m not one to usually complain about unconventional storytelling methods for films, but there’s so much being done to shake up how Mothering Sunday reveals itself that is ill-fitting to the narrative as a whole. I found it unnecessary and purposely disorienting to rearrange the story in what felt like a playlist of a film being put on shuffle. There’s no rhyme or reason to much of it, and I never felt like any plot developments of the film were heightened by the non-linear approach. If anything I found it often to make the relatively modest 104-minute runtime feel like a massive slog.
Outside of that major flaw that does a lot to harm my engagement with what could’ve been a serviceable, if unremarkable story, Mothering Sunday does get a fair deal right. The impressive cast all deliver great performances across the board, with Young stealing the screen with a quiet, graceful turn as the strong-willed Jane. Perhaps the likes of legends like Jackson, Firth, and Colman often felt a little wasted given their caliber, but it gives breathing room to the younger, more involved cast like O’Connor, Dìrísù, and a criminally underutilized Emma D’Arcy as Sherington’s betrothed fiancé Emma. You can’t argue that this is a fabulously assembled group of the established and soon-to-be-established British actors of the time.
While much more grounded than the bright costume dramas of recents like Bridgerton and Emma, Mothering Sunday’s aesthetic bathes it in a sumptuous golden shine that compliments the erotic nature of much of the film perfectly. Sunlight bathes grand Victorian bedrooms and naked bodies with a graceful effervescence that doesn’t leave the film’s occasionally graphic nature feeling even the slightest bit exploitative (and for once, there’s equal male and female nudity abound here. Equality!). While it’s not a visual stunner in how much it’s trying to do, what it does is unimposing and warmly comforting, like a film like this should feel.
It’s just a real shame how much comes back to this film’s structure completely throwing off what could’ve been a highly serviceable romantic period drama. I complain about conventionality often in films, but this is a rare moment where I feel like a conventional approach to storytelling could’ve very easily saved what became a frustratingly opaque experience. Once you put the puzzle pieces together, it all makes sense in a way that you can appreciate much more, and there’s tons to appreciate in the film’s direction and performances, but even when one begins to appreciate it, it still always come back to the same question: Why did we do this in the first place, then?
In select theaters beginning March 25th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Sony Pictures Classics Mothering Sunday webpage.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.