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TIFF 2021 Review: Mothering Sunday – “The style overshadows the substance”

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Image Courtesy of TIFF

In introducing her new film Mothering Sunday, director Eva Husson says that the “script arrived at a time of great personal loss.”  Then, having to shoot starting in September of 2020, it was a time of loss for everyone.  So as the film begins, “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed,” you realize that you likely aren’t in for a fairytale ending.

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Adapted by Alice Birch from a novel by Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday tells the story of Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), a maid for a wealthy family in England.  The Nivens (played by Colin Firth and Olivia Colman) seem like affable employers, but, like many families in a post-World War I world, they are mourning the loss of their sons who died in battle.  Despite their palpable sadness they maintain that ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality and still stay social with their neighbours, especially the Sheringhams.  After also losing two of their sons, their only remaining heir, Paul (Josh O’Connor) is doing what his family expects of him, going to law school and getting engaged to a woman of their stature.

But on her day off, Mothering Sunday, Jane is meeting Paul at his family’s home for a romantic tryst while his mother and father are meeting the Nivens and his finacé’s parents for lunch.  Their affair is romantic and sensual, and not the first time.  It’s clear the two have a deep connection.  But it’s forbidden love, and soon Paul must step into his new, responsible life, saying what sounds like an all too final goodbye to Jane as he leaves.  It’s a love story that is not meant to be, but that day’s events reverberate through Jane’s life even decades later.

Mixing the privileged setting of Downton Abbey with the sensual nature of, say, Bridgerton, this period drama is beautiful in its production design and costumes, yet there are plenty of moments where those costumes make their way to the floor.  Steamy, sexual scenes between Young and O’Connor leave little to the imagination, but are intimate and comfortable in the chemistry between the two.  There are long stretches of time where each actor is fully nude, but it always seems natural within the story and setting.  The talent of their acting obviously goes way beyond these scenes, and this is Young’s film to carry, which she handily accomplishes.  Fans of Colin Firth and Olivia Colman however may be disappointed in their lack of screen time, but they make the most of their supporting characters, each delivering some of the most emotionally intense moments of the film.

The problem with Mothering Sunday doesn’t come from its beautiful cinematography from Jamie D. Ramsay, nor in the strong performances or score by Morgan Kibby, but in the structure of the film itself.  There are time jumps, and even more time jumps within them that are confusing at first and then frustrating.  Between these and the slow pace of the film itself, it never allows you to become fully invested in the younger characters, which makes you care less about Jane in her later life.  The emotional punch when it occurs just doesn’t land, and the rest of the film, while stunning and meticulous just feels lacking.  This is one film where the style overshadows the substance. Worth a watch for its beauty but plot largely forgettable by its end.

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