Mothering Sunday movie review: superbly played but the plot clashes

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he posters for this period drama suggest we’re expecting hi-jinks at Downton Abbey. Yet the secret romance, at the heart of the story, blows this comparison out of the water. It’s not what you would call comfortable.

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

Jane catches Paul’s attention and turns out to have her own spin eyes. It is she who will have to make sense of the death and destruction surrounding Paul’s family and two other wealthy Berkshire clans. Both of Paul’s brothers were killed in World War I. Mr. and Mrs. Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), Jane’s employers, have lost two sons. Are Firth and Colman captivating? Silly question. The two manage to be overwhelmed with grief, in surprisingly precise and different ways. Mr. Niven is beset by misery. Mrs. Niven is very toothy.

Odessa Young plays the maid Jane Fairchild

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In scenes set decades later, Sope Dirisu is also found to be memorable as Donald, Jane’s sweet but satirical lover. And Glenda Jackson casually wastes away, as famous author Jane becomes.

Uh, about that. The big problem with Mothering Sunday is that no real maid (at least not working in England, in the early part of the twentieth century) has made this particular career change.

So much about Jane’s character bow pot. Why is her accent virtually the same as Paul’s? And how is it that when she leaves Niven’s house, she so easily finds a job as a bookstore saleswoman? His employer (and, later, his literary agent) seem too willing to see beyond his humble origins. For all the grainy and sexy details, Mothering Sunday could be a Dickensian fairy tale. Refined accents. Benevolent patrons. It’s Oliver Twist, again.

Josh O’Connor: Jane’s love interest in the upper class

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This writer Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth; Normal People) embarks on this pickle shows how difficult it is to explore the British class system. Birch wants to give us a strong and fluid heroine. Mothering Sunday is bolder than the aforementioned Downton Abbey (and also eschews the My Fairy Lady and Merchant Ivory tropes). It even goes against the trend of turning a charismatic proletariat into a sacrificial victim, which some argue happens in both The Go-Between and Atonement.

So where does he leave us? This film is not particularly subtle but it is well intentioned and engaging. Jane’s lover asks her about the book she’s working on. He said, “Is it a van or a whale?” Jane says she isn’t sure, which seems fair. His opus, like the film itself, is light and strong at the same time.

In theaters now. 110 minutes, 15


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