Mothering Sunday review — Love and despair in post-war Britain

Directed by Eva Husson | Written by Alice Birch, adapting a novel by Graham Swift | 110 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Amazon Prime

An earlier version of this review appeared on Flaw In The Iris in September 2021 during the FIN: Atlantic International Film Festival

Mothering Sunday is a lyrical, gorgeous, and deeply melancholy British drama. Jane Fairchild (an astonishing turn from Odessa Young) works in service for the Niven family (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman) who live in perpetual grief because their sons died in the First World War. Their friends, the Sheringhams, also lost their boys, but for Paul (Josh O’Connor), who was too young to fight. Paul is engaged to be married, but in the meantime is having an affair with Jane over at the Nivens.

Much of the film takes place on Mothers’ Day, when Paul is expected at a lunch with family and fiancé at Henley-On-Thames, but is instead home in bed with Jane.

What’s delightful here, right off the bat, is the film’s unselfconscious attitude towards sex and the human body. We live in such a prudish time, so to see a picture this frank about humans taking pleasure in each other is practically transgressive. Perhaps, as we witnessed with Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, female filmmakers are the best at this right now.

The heart of the picture is a scene of Jane walking naked in a Downton-sized mansion, through a library and kitchen, and the joy and power therein, especially given the era and her position in it. This is a powerful dose of what I’m talking about.

Those visceral moments are balanced against scenes of jagged sadness — almost all the other characters living with grief and resentment, moment to moment. The score — a mix of atmospheric strings and a percussive, Reichian piano by Morgan Kibby — is a big part of the seductive spell the film casts as it shifts from passion to desolation.

Birch, whose work on Lady Macbeth and Normal People has confirmed her as a storyteller interested in both sensual and emotional authenticity, is backed up by Husson’s impressive directorial skill. The film fragments the narrative with jumps both backward and forward in time, where we visit Jane and her future husband (Sope Dirisu), and again Jane much later in life (a cameo from the legendary Glenda Jackson).

It’s a potent and uncompromising film, and easily made my list of the best of 2021. It hasn’t received much of a release here, dropped unceremoniously on digital platforms, but it deserves serious consideration.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.