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Mothering Sunday review: Sex, grief and sensuality are mingled in an inconclusive adaptation

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Dir: Eva Husson. Starring: Odessa Young, Josh O'Connor, Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Sope Dìrísù, Glenda Jackson. Cert 15, 110 minutes

There is nothing in life if there is no grief, Mothering Sunday seems to say. The period drama’s heroine, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), is an orphan – now a maid employed in the Berkshire household of Mr and Mrs Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman). Most of its action takes place on a single day – 30 March 1924, the Mothering Sunday of the title, when maids would typically be given the day off to visit home. All are living in the ashes of the First World War, grieving dead sons, fathers, and brothers. Jane alone seems to have been spared the pain.

She spends the day visiting her secret lover, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor, tragically romantic), the only surviving son of a neighbouring family. They both cherish their time alone, together, in their self-constructed haven of youthful lust. “You are what I intend to study today,” Paul tells her, as he puts aside his law textbooks and rolls down her stockings. Mothering Sunday marks the English-language debut of French director Eva Husson, working off an adaptation of Graham Swift’s 2016 novel by playwright Alice Birch, and there’s certainly a healthy dollop of Gallic sensuality here – first teased when Jane extends a delicate forefinger, swipes up a dollop of apricot jam from a kitchen jar, and places it teasingly in her mouth. Another maid has just asked her where she’s headed for the day. She’ll never tell.

Birch relishes this kind of imagery – of interlocking hands and bodies, stains on white sheets. At one point, Jane walks naked around the empty Sheringham home, knowing that everyone else is off to some dreadfully boring picnic. The desire to touch compels her once more, and her hands brush against the shelves of fine leather books and the vases of fresh-cut lilies.

But by daring to love Paul, she exposes herself to loss for the very first time. He’s engaged to Emma Hobday (Emma D'Arcy), the only remaining child of another of the county’s prominent families. The wedding is in 11 days. He likely won’t see Jane ever again after that. There’s a real potency to how Husson contrasts the sexual frankness of the young lovers’ meetings with the miserable ritual of their outside lives – the difference between white sheets and the deep reds and fussy florals of an Edwardian parlour room. Though Firth and Colman’s roles here are relatively minor, they’re crucial in establishing that sense of tone. Firth, who’s played many a grieving man and always does it beautifully, stumbles over bits of idle talk. Nothing he says really means anything. He’s just trying to fill the void with something. Colman is brittle and haunted, as an air of death lingers around her like a whisper.

These are all listless people, stuck in the same places and the same cycles of emotion. It’s Jane alone who moves, who propels herself forward to the whirring strings of Morgan Kibby’s score. Birch, mixing up the structure of Swift’s book, has her story occasionally flash forward to two later periods in Jane’s life – a relationship with a philosophy student named Donald (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), who encourages her to write about her relationship with Paul, and a time many years later, when her books have become commercial and critical successes. In the latter portion, Jane is played by Glenda Jackson, in her first feature film role in more than three decades. But it’s in these portions of the film that Husson’s vision starts to stumble – both Dìrísù and Jackson are woefully underused, and there’s little sense of who Jane has become in the intervening years. While so much of Mothering Sunday focuses on how grief, or the lack of grief, shapes its characters, it comes to an oddly inconclusive end.

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