Starring Josh O’Connor, Olivia Colman, and Colin Firth, Eva Husson’s film Mothering Sunday already promises a beloved British period drama from the cast alone. That said, the film cannot be saved by their great performances.
Mothering Sunday is based on a book about the aftereffects of World War I on the lives of tight-knit British families, which includes the Sheringhams. The main focus of the film is the love story between an upper-class man, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), and a poor maid, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young). They care deeply for one another, but Sheringham’s familial obligations get in the way of their romance. He must marry another upper-class woman rather than a maid like Fairchild. Fairchild, who is deeply affected by her love for Sheringham, carries the memory of their last meeting throughout her life.
Fairchild’s character questions if people are capable of real love when they are not shown it growing up. As an orphan, she did not feel the same grief as the upper-class families for losing relatives in the war because she had none to begin with. She only had the sympathy of hearing stories from Paul and the other families. Instead of seeing it as a negative, Jane uses this as a driving force to pursue her passions and to love whomever she wanted. She goes further by embodying the experiences of Paul as part of her own.
The performances are the highlights of the film, which comes as no surprise. Young’s performance is what carries the film throughout each scene. She holds her own as the main character and as an actress alongside more experienced actors like Academy Award winners Olivia Colman and Colin Firth.
Personally, I can’t help but compare this film to Atonement (2007), which follows a similar story structure and also focuses on romance. The main reason why Atonement works, and Mothering Sunday does not, is the way the scenes unfold. The latter may have succeeded in telling the story, but not in the best way of doing so. The point of the film feels lost in the jarring editing that distracts from the main thesis of the film. There were scenes that shifts from flashback to flashback, which also shift the emotional intensities of the scenes. For example, one of the characters is distraught, then it snaps back to a calm atmosphere. The emotional lows for Atonement are also more memorable and more impactful compared to Mothering Sunday. It seems that the film put more importance on slower-paced scenes that did not necessarily add to the plot but added to the perspective of the characters, especially Fairchild’s. It’s a risk that the filmmakers took but I personally don’t see that it paid off well.
Husson’s Mothering Sunday is a touching book adaptation on grief with excellent performances. Young is a refreshing actress with a role that fits her talents. While it does not overshadow the efforts of others, the faults of the film prevent it from being excellent. Ultimately, the way the scenes were arranged or edited together does not fulfill the emotional punches that it promises to offer.