Horror as we came to know it in the 20th century and right up through today can trace most of its roots back to the period immediately following the World War I (highly recommended reading on this subject is W. Scott Poole’s book Wasteland), an event of devastating laceration across mankind that revealed the weak meat of us just beneath. Soldiers came home in stitches, sacks, an animal ugliness bursting through society’s seams—everything was different after we’d seen the horrors we were truly capable of on such a mass scale. The world was an open wound.
Director Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Graham Swift, is not a horror film, but it is set astride this same wounded world of horrors seared into every person’s skin, and every character within the film seems to still tremble with the moment’s shock and terrible awe. Downton Abbey comparisons are more apt, as that show also began by exploring the same period and among the same “Upstairs Downstairs” crowds, and there’s not an actor or character here—our lead Odessa Young playing the orphaned maid Jane Fairchild, with Josh O’Connor as the delicately haunted scion Paul Sheringham with whom she has an affair, and Olivia Colman and Colin Firth as the wealthy family who employ her—who wouldn’t have fit right in on that series.
Some of the soap opera flourishes of Downton do lightly fizz at Sunday’s edges (imminent weddings and torrid affairs, all while the help looks on) but there’s not much of that series’ propulsive plot thrust. Besides a few flash-forwards into the future, the bulk of this aching and open-hearted film is set over the course of one Mother’s Day right after WWI, when all of the mothers in town are forced to wear one more damn brave face, and everyone seems keenly aware of the endless absence, the bottomless grief, in their midst. The air thrums with loss, and into it one gorgeous and horny couple on the down-low seeks to fill the emptiness up with a few stolen moments of life, lust, smiles, meaning. Something, anything, that doesn’t at its base weep.
“You’re my friend, my true friend,” O’Connor’s Paul, seemingly the only young man left standing in his entire village, gently confides in Jane at one post-coital point, and Mothering Sunday itself is most alive (as it should be) when these two are whispering these sweet somethings at one another. I’m convinced Josh O’Connor could draw chemistry from a stone but he’s up against no such obstinance here with Young, a lovely and graceful performer whose open cheeks flush as willfully and defiantly in the face of so much sadness as his own. They have chemistry for days, and their doomed romance, coming as it does 11 days before he’s set to be married off to a distracted and haughty woman of his own societal standing, does everything it needs to do for the somewhat melodramatic beats of the later plot to land.
Colman and Firth’s roles are smaller than I anticipated, but Colman is given one stunning moment to shine, as the weight of her unfathomable desolation topples her over in the most unfortunate of moments, blasting the day’s finely massaged veneer to bits. And another Oscar winner, no less than Glenda Jackson herself, shows up for some probably gratuitous and ultimately unnecessary closure to this love affair’s spectral lament. But then, if you can get Jackson to show up for a day to smile and sneer for your film in equal measure then you do it, no questions asked.
“Comprehensively bereaved” is how Jane finds herself at one point described, her traumatized childhood having supposedly stiffened her back for all of the 20th century horrors ahead, but Mothering Sunday, in its gracefully ethereal way, is wise to the ways in which we’re never, not ever, truly prepared for trauma. The moments of stillness and beauty are the ones that haunt, that linger, as you work overtime to remember what stillness and beauty even were from the inevitable-after viewpoint; forever freshly scarred by every storm and stress, enough loss for several lifetimes, if you’re strong enough to bear it.
Mothering Sunday was screened virtually as part of the 2021 TIFF film festival. For another perspective on Mothering Sunday, read Caspar Salmon’s review for us out of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures Classics/TIFF