Mothering Sunday Review

England, 1924. Housemaid Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is left alone on Mothering Sunday while her employers Mr and Mrs Niven (Colin Firth, Olivia Colman) lunch in Henley. The day off gives her time to spend a lusty afternoon with neighbouring toff Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor). Can their illicit affair last?

by Ian Freer |
Published on
Release Date:

12 Nov 2021

Original Title:

Mothering Sunday

There’s tons to like in French filmmaker Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday, an adaptation of Graham Swift’s 2016 novella. Centring on a clandestine upstairs-downstairs love affair, Husson’s film avoids costume-drama stuffiness through lyrical filmmaking, carnal frankness and a non-linear approach that jumps around three time-frames. It might not get under the skin of its protagonist and misses out on a huge emotional pay-off, but it is an absorbing, engaging watch with a heady, intoxicating atmosphere.


The key action centres on a hot and heavy romance between housemaid Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) and upper-crust son of neighbouring family Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), primarily through the prism of a sexy afternoon on Mother’s Day, 1924. Jane is housemaid to Mr and Mrs Niven (Colin Firth, Olivia Colman) and, although an orphan, is given Mothering Sunday off to spend how she pleases. She chooses getting jiggy with Paul, whose family — and fiancée Emma (Emma D’Arcy) — are having lunch with the Nivens in Henley. From the trailer you might think this is Downton-esque. In reality, the sex scenes are full-on, bodily fluids visible on bedsheets. It’s enough to make Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess faint.

It’s all beautifully crafted, but the film never really gets us inside Jane’s head.

As well as flitting between the shagging and the sarnies, Alice Birch’s (Lady Macbeth, Normal People) screenplay also jumps ahead to Jane’s relationship with philosopher Donald (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, given little to work with) in the 1950s — Young doesn’t make for a very convincing 40-year-old — and even further ahead to the present day, with Glenda Jackson playing the character as a revered author. Perhaps employed to flesh out the one-day-in-the-life focus of the novel, this structural jiggery-pokery doesn’t do much for emotional engagement with the character’s predicaments. Husson also employs stream-of-consciousness editing — the use of disconnected voiceover with images of gently-blowing fields or sunlight peeking through trees smacks of Malick — seemingly to replicate the character’s interior voice in the novel. It’s all beautifully crafted, but the film never really gets us inside Jane’s head.

Still, Young and O’Connor make the ache of the affair tangible, the former mesmerising, fully committing to her role: after Paul heads off for lunch, a completely naked Jane explores the house in a lengthy set-piece, Husson shooting the actor without a hint of exploitation. O’Connor, equally comfortable in the buff, lends Paul a seductive charm.

But perhaps the most affecting strand of the film sees the undertow of grief in post-World War I Britain, economically but beautifully evoked by the likes of Colin Firth and especially Olivia Colman. “You have nothing to lose and never shall,” she tells the orphaned Jane. The palpable parental bereavement makes the live-life-while-you-can philosophy of the youngsters all the more understandable.

Mothering Sunday just falls short of a great movie; a radical attempt to shake up period-picture staidness, shot through with strong performances, impeccable craft and a strain of sadness, but it’s never enough to tug vigorously at the heartstrings.
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