starring Odessa Young, Josh O'Connor, Sope Dirisu, Olivia Colman
screenplay by Alice Birch, based on the novel by Graham Swift
directed by Eva Husson
by Bill Chambers An orphan groomed for servitude, young Jane (Odessa Young) is a maid in the employ of aristocratic couple the Nivens in post-WWI England. Jane is quiet, dutiful, mindful of the cloud of sorrow hanging over her employers, who lost a child to the war. (We infer that it's left Mrs. Niven (Olivia Colman) catatonic and Mr. Niven (a grizzled Colin Firth) a babbling mess as he tries to fill the silences.) Jane is also, we glean from inserts of word prompts from her notebooks, a listener, hoarding material for some writing project we see her working on years later, boyfriend Donald (Sope Dirisu) close by to serve as a sounding board. Mothering Sunday, the UK version of Mother's Day, arrives and the Nivens give motherless Jane the day off, which she spends in bed with the neighbours' son, Paul (Josh O'Connor), who appears to have counted his blessings upon returning from the battlefield and refuses to risk disappointing his parents by breaking off his engagement to a woman of means for a maid, despite his obvious affection for Jane. Eventually, Paul takes off to go meet his fiancee, leaving Jane to explore the big empty house alone. Jane, au naturel, ventures downstairs and becomes particularly taken with the vast library, her lack of clothing critical to breaking down the hermetic seal of the rich and making all this profoundly hers. This show of somewhat transgressive behaviour feels transgressive in itself, partly because the movies have gotten so chaste lately and partly because, through a COVID lens, nudity is an especial act of hubris. It's mesmerizing, these few minutes of Mothering Sunday.
It's also one of the few times the camera truly takes in the characters' surroundings--so much of the film is choppy and claustrophobic, with the actors quarantined from one another in rigid close-ups. Whether this is a stylistic choice or a product of social distancing is impossible for me to say, but the approach only incidentally connects with themes of the class divide and the isolating aspects of grief since it's so unyielding. (Formally, Mothering Sunday is almost the exact inverse of fellow Fest entry The Humans.) Making matters worse is a nested structure that goes the full Atonement, casting Glenda Jackson as a present-day Jane to bring closure to a story that's already over. I don't think Jane, for all her taciturnity, is quite the enigma the film believes her to be, but then I felt a kinship with her struggle to chisel through layers of repression--some of them programming, some of them self-defense--and write honestly about the past. A bigger mystery to me is how this penniless foundling so gracefully extricates herself from the Nivens to become a bookseller, though the moment where Jane tells Mr. Niven of her future plans nicely showcases Firth's oft-untapped warmth. As for Colman, you may wonder what the recent, in-demand Academy Award winner is doing here. Rest assured, there is a "Beatrice Straight scene" in which a devastated Mrs. Niven tells Jane how lucky she was to be born with nothing because it means she can't experience loss. It's a backhanded compliment that curdles a mournful Jane's blood; there's really no humbling the rich. (This is where you can tell Mothering Sunday is from the acid pen of Lady Macbeth screenwriter Alice Birch.) But the speech, in its star-driven way, throws off the picture's centre of gravity, and the rest of the film comes to seem like an anticlimax focused on the wrong character, or at least the wrong relationships. PROGRAMME: SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS