Mothering Sunday – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Director – Eva Husson
Writers – Alice Birch (screenplay), Graham Swift (novel)
Stars – Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Josh O’Connor
This film has a very clear aesthetic. It also has sophisticated acting by some stellar names, not to mention a turn by Glenda Jackson (it is easy to imagine that she is playing her Labour politician self). Yes, there is much to enjoy and admire in this mood piece. It is also slow and requires patience and reflection, as we contemplate our own past dreams and lost loved ones.
Based on the well-received novella (2016) of the same name, by Graham Swift, this film exudes a distinctively English sensibility, not to say obsession with class and the upper orders and their ways. How much more entertaining to view the denizens of a Downtown Abbey than the Smiths at number 37. Languorous, not to say turgid, it looks back at lost summers, lost loves and lost youth and indeed a lost sense of Englishness and the glory days of old. Set in the sylvan Thames valley, well-to-do families strive to maintain their halcyon days before the horrors of the Great War and the loss of all their finest in the horror of the trenches. A surviving son is to do his duty by marrying the not overtly likeable eligible daughter of one of the ‘set’ while having it off with the maid from the other house. At its best, it speaks of love and the manner in which the creative spirit of a writer can be informed by tragedy.
In a Merchant-Ivory sense, there is great attention to archaeological detail – the right teacups, the correct cut of a suit and gown (all created by the multi-award winning Sandy Powell). Jane, the future novelist, has an eye for detail and we share her explorations – the caress of the spine of a book, the detail on a cigarette case, the frame of a photograph, the crush of an orchid blossom. For all that attention to minute detail, there are some directorial lacunae. It is set on a specific day, Mothering Sunday, 30 March 1924. And it is taking global warming to an extreme by presuming that all the fields and woodlands are in full July /August lushness. A picnic by the Thames might be a jolly idea but, as one’s mother might say, you’d need a cardigan. Jane, the love interest, is a child of an orphanage but clearly an upper class one, as like Oliver in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) she sounds posh, and certainly a different cut to the other housemaids on show – common one and all. There is also the class obsession with so much of cinema of this type, the handsome son of the house having it off with the maid. Is it a prurient fantasy? The controversial soft-focus photographer David Hamilton (1933-2016) was at the heart of a heated debate on art or pornography. He was well known for his misty shots of young girls on bicycles. As Jane cycles off to her lover along country lanes, there is something of the David Hamilton about the mood. We are left feeling sorry or at least having empathy for the lovers. Yet could we not argue that this is an exploitative relationship – her lover even offers her money – a relationship that can never develop as he well knows, not only in the 1920s but in the 2020s. Not many sons of London-based Russian oligarchs will be free to marry their housemaids. What evokes a certain tristesse in 1924 might actually be a somewhat unpleasant scenario, if set in the now.