Mothering Sunday changes how we think about female nudity on screen

·5-min read
Photo credit: Film 4/Sony Pictures
Photo credit: Film 4/Sony Pictures

Mothering Sunday spoilers follow.

Mothering Sunday brings two stars from The Crown – Josh O'Connor and Olivia Colman – together on screen and also reveals (among other things) how misplaced our fear of female nudity on screen is.

In the post-World War II drama, Jane (Odessa Young), a maid to Mr and Mrs Niven's (Colin Firth and Colman) household, is having an affair with the only young man left in the village, Paul (Josh O'Connor), who is engaged to be married in several days' time.

After they've had sex in his house, he dresses and leaves Jane to let herself out. For around 10 painstaking minutes (though it feels like much longer), Jane explores his family's grand house completely naked.

Before Paul leaves, he gives Jane permission to help herself to anything in the fridge as he could always pretend that he had eaten it when he got home. Instead, Jane takes her time and his blessing to explore the house as though it's her own home.

Photo credit: Film 4/Sony Pictures
Photo credit: Film 4/Sony Pictures

The caveat of Paul taking responsibility for Jane's actions gives her a heightened sense of confidence that leads her to take a book from the library, smoke a cigarette from Paul's father's desk and not clean up after herself.

She stops herself from automatically washing up her plate after eating a slice of pie as Paul wouldn't have to. It's the only time Jane doesn't have to conform to her given role within the household, she's allowed to act as though the home is her own.

Jane appears to be unfazed about parading naked around Paul's parents' home; she's not overly-confident or sexualised in the slightest, she just exists in this private space. In almost-silence, tension builds as Jane spends longer exploring the house and taking mementoes of her time with Paul.

As a viewer, we're innately aware of her vulnerability. Yet, we realise that the anxiety has been misplaced as Jane cycles home and learns that Paul has just died in a car accident.

The screenwriter Alice Birch – adapting from Graham Swift's book of the same name – and the director Eve Husson have undoubtedly placed these two jarring scenes together as a reminder that Jane was never in any real danger, she was naked in an empty house. It wasn't socially acceptable, but it wasn't dangerous either.

Photo credit: Film 4/Sony Pictures
Photo credit: Film 4/Sony Pictures

However, the audience is inclined to fear more for Jane as a nude woman in a man's space than Paul driving to see his friends. Birch is emphasising that a naked woman isn't dangerous, it's natural.

It's a turn of events that's rarely seen on screen: a non-sexualised, naked woman (with all of her body hair) explores a forbidden space without any punishment.

Upon his death, the freedom that he gave her dies as well. Instead, Jane returns to her life as a maid and has to carry the earth-shattering secret that she was with Paul before he died and that she stole from a rich family's home.

Typically in period dramas, such as Downton Abbey, if a member of staff is having an affair in a household, she's shamed for it. Birch has broken these tropes to suggest that female nudity and sexuality isn't a crime, it shouldn't be met with shame or reprimanded.

Birch's message transcends any form of judgement towards Jane to point out that life is fragile, some opportunities will pass you by if you turn them down out of fear. Jane loses nothing from sleeping with an engaged man and even ripping a flower off Paul's mother's prized orchards, but Paul loses everything.

These contrasting moments capture how fleeting opportunities can be, due to the unexpected events that inevitably disrupt our future. It was the only chance Jane would ever have to walk through a grand house, as though it was her own and her last chance to be with Paul.

Photo credit: Film 4/Sony Pictures
Photo credit: Film 4/Sony Pictures

The significance of this affair is marked by Jane undressing throughout the day. The first time, Paul slowly removes Jane's clothes to "study" her body. It's intimate and exciting.

At the end of the day after Paul's death, Jane undresses herself and goes through the same motions alone. This time, there's no thrill to being naked, it doesn't make her feel free, but physically and emotionally vulnerable. Her nudity starts as a symbol of her power and autonomy over her body and life, but by the end of the day, that power has dissipated.

As the crushed orchard she stole and hid in her bodice falls to the floor, Jane realises that this secret – the affair, the freedom she felt over her body – has all gone with Paul. The squashed flower is a reminder of the loss of Paul's life, but also some of her own innocence and freedom too.

Jane's secret stays with her until she's elderly and publishes her story in a book. Jane (played at this stage by Glenda Jackson) finally alleviates the weight of the secret that she has hidden even from her next husband Donald (Sope Dirisu).

The fact that she publishes her story at a more socially acceptable time allows Jane to reclaim back the autonomy that Paul gave her. She no longer has anyone to fear or any judgement to face, she can live in peace with the fact that her deepest, hidden secret still causes her no harm or punishment.

This final moment reinforces that a naked woman and a woman emboldened by her sexuality isn't dangerous, it's just historically a freedom that's only given to men.

Mothering Sunday is in cinemas now.

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