Mothering Sunday review: Superbly acted but this period drama’s plot jars

·2-min read
 (Handout)
(Handout)

The posters for this period drama suggest we’re in store for Downton Abbey-ish hi-jinks. Yet the secret romance, at the heart of the story, blows that comparison out of the water. It’s not what you’d call cosy.

There’s so much to recommend Eva Husson’s adaptation of Graham Swift’s 2016 novel. Josh O’Connor, as soft-spoken, pensive toff Paul Sheringham, is hypnotically naturalistic. Odessa Young (witchy and yet doll-like; it’s as if Elisabeth Moss and Felicity Jones have been poured into one body) is just as good as orphaned maid Jane Fairchild.

Jane catches Paul’s eye and turns out to have gimlet eyes of her own. It’s she who will have to make sense of the death and destruction that surround Paul’s family and two other rich Berkshire clans. Paul’s two brothers were killed in WWI. Mr and Mrs Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), Jane’s employers, lost two sons. Are Firth and Colman gripping? Silly question. Both manage to be grief-stricken, in stunningly precise and different ways. Mr Niven is defanged by misery. Mrs Niven is all teeth.

Odessa Young plays maid Jane Fairchild (Handout)
Odessa Young plays maid Jane Fairchild (Handout)

In scenes set decades later, Sope Dirisu also proves memorable as Donald, Jane’s gentle but satirical lover. And Glenda Jackson is jauntily withering, as the famous author Jane becomes.

Er, about that. The big problem with Mothering Sunday is that no real maids (at least, not any working in England, in the first part of the twentieth century) pulled off this particular career move.

So many things about Jane character arc jar. Why is her accent practically the same as Paul’s? And how is it that, when she leaves the Niven home, she’s able to get a job as a book shop assistant so easily? Her employer (and, later, her literary agent) appear all too willing to see past her humble origins. For all the gritty and sexy details, Mothering Sunday could be a Dickensian fairytale. Refined accents. Kindly patrons. This is Oliver Twist, all over again.

Josh O’Connor as Jane’s upper class love interest (Handout)
Josh O’Connor as Jane’s upper class love interest (Handout)

That writer Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth; Normal People) gets herself into this pickle shows how difficult it is to explore Britain’s class system. Birch wants to give us a heroine who’s strong and fluid. Mothering Sunday is bolder than the aforementioned Downton Abbey (and avoids My Fairy Lady and Merchant Ivory tropes, too). It even bucks the trend for turning a charismatic prole into a sacrificial victim, which one could argue happens in both The Go-Between and Atonement.

So where does leave us? This movie isn’t especially subtle but it is well-intentioned and involving. Jane’s lover asks her about the book she’s working on. He says, “Is it a winnow or a whale?” Jane says she’s not sure, which feels right. Her opus, like the film itself, is slight and sturdy, all at the same time.

In cinemas now. 110mins, 15

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