TIFF Review: 'Mothering Sunday' Finds Light Between the Tragedy of the Wars Directed by Eva Husson
Starring Colin Firth, Odessa Young, Josh O'Connor, Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, Olivia Colman, Glenda Jackson, Patsy Ferran, Emma D'Arcy
Published Sep 14, 2021"Once upon a time" is a phrase that we hear time and time again, and it ties strongly to memory. Eva Husson's Mothering Sunday, adapted by Alice Birch from Graham Swift's novel, takes place in a time of loss between two World Wars. "Once upon a time," to the film's characters, means thinking back to the moments when their boys were alive. For Jane (Odessa Young), who is telling this story, it's back to the day that shaped her, and Husson finds light in all the gloom.
Mothering Sunday focuses on three tight-knit rich families who host many elegant lunches and soirées, but there's always an emptiness at their crowded table. Jane is the housemaid to the Nivens, who lost both sons in the war. Colin Firth plays the kind Mr. Niven with a forced cheeriness, forcing himself to stay positive and hold what's left of his wife (played by Olivia Colman, who carries a forlorn look in every scene) and himself together. On Mother's Day, the pair head out to meet their friends the Sheringhams and the Hobdays.
The orphaned Jane is motherless on Mothering Sunday, so she sneaks off to spend time with her lover, Paul. The ever-charming Josh O'Connor is the second piece of this secret love affair, and both he and Young have sizzling chemistry, providing the film's sensuality. As the only Sheringham boy to survive the war, a sense of duty weighs on Paul. He's engaged to be married to the fashionable and irritable Emma Hobday (Caroline Harker). Paul is a man of a certain status who must marry a woman of the same, so Jane and Paul could never be. But she lives that fantasy for a fleeting moment, walking alone around the Sheringham house naked as though it's her own.
Mothering Sunday is very dream-like once it's revealed that Jane is an author who is reflecting on her past. But memory is tricky, and the way this story is told can be confusing as it jumps from the present to the past and even the future and back again. It feels long at times, but the outstanding cast, led by a captivating Young, with delectable costumes and exquisitely detailed production design, keeps us fully immersed. Moving and intricate, the cinematography is a standout, as well. There's a breathtaking shot of a horse running in slow motion, hit by the sun's rays in an otherworldly way. The way the camera plays with sunlight in the film makes us forget the tragedy that surrounds it.
Everything must end in one way or another, sometimes earlier than we would like. But if Mothering Sunday tells us anything, it's that memories survive.
The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 18. Get info about in-person and online screenings at the festival website. (Mongrel Media)