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Mothering Sunday review – a succession of emotional epiphanies

Eva Husson’s tender adaptation of the Graham Swift novella is a meditation on memory that burns with an unmistakable passion

Eva Husson’s disarmingly gentle Mothering Sunday, adapted from Graham Swift’s novella of the same name, takes a little while to take root in the mind and wrap itself around the heart, though once it does there’s no escaping the succession of emotional epiphanies that follow. At once a tenderly crafted rumination on our transient nature, the messy business of our memories, and the way love and grief frame and reframe our experiences anew, Husson’s film is as thematically involved as the book on which it is based, complete with beautiful camerawork, an embarrassment of rich performances, and a stunning adapted screenplay from Alice Birch.

The film’s plot centres on 30th March, 1924 – “Mothering Sunday.” Jane Fairchild, played with wide-eyed wonder as a young maid and a more furrowed brow in future-set scenes as a writer by the radiant Odessa Young, has a rare day off from her duties to the Nivens’ (a gentle Colin Firth and a guarded Olivia Colman). They have plans to celebrate the engagement of Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor) and Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy), the sole surviving son and daughter of the three closely connected families whose losses in WWI hang heavily over their lives.

Emma was once engaged to the Nivens’ deceased son James, whilst Paul has had a mutual infatuation with Jane since they were children. Knowing the end of their affair is imminent, Paul delays leaving for the engagement party to have one last meeting with Jane, who races to his impressive home in Upleigh to spend her day off with him.

Within moments of her arrival at the Sheringham home, Jane – described in Swift’s novel as “a woman who threw herself naked at the doorstep of life” – is being slowly undressed by Paul, who takes refuge from his survivors’ guilt (we learn he has two brothers lost to the war) in the contours of Jane’s body. Jane similarly escapes through Paul, the scars of the past melting in the heat of their present passion as Jamie Ramsay’s camera sensually captures their naked forms convalescing in the cold light of spring.

While much of the film is given to the hours Jane and Paul spend enveloped in one another, juxtaposed against the niceties and mounting tension at Mr. and Mrs. Niven’s celebration as the banks of their grief threaten to burst while awaiting Paul’s arrival, Husson takes the novella’s lead and allows timelines to bleed into one another with the fluidity, malleability, and spontaneity of memory.

A line uttered by Paul in 1924 becomes a sticking point for Jane as a writer in the 50s committing her affair to the page under the supportive eye of soft-spoken intellectual beau Donald (Sope Dirisu – a quietly commanding presence); an undone shoe is a portal to Jane and Paul’s earliest encounters; and a flower pressed clandestinely in the pages of a book from the Sheringhams’ library shifts from one hour to the next in symbolic meaning to Jane.

At the centre of these transitions is always Jane, whose point-of-view is the film’s holding core and driving force. This focus is held by Husson in the way she builds her film around Young’s mercurial performance, honoured by an understated O’Connor, whose Paul bares all – literally and figuratively – to be a part of her story.

Though it takes time to tune into a work which suffuses sadness and sex in pursuit of a philosophic exploration of mortality, Mothering Sunday is an entrancing experience. While Sandy Powell’s fanciful costumes and Helen Scott’s opulent production design suggest a Downton-esque prestige period piece, it’s fascinating to watch Husson and her collaborators strip it all down to reveal people hurtling through a turbulent period and holding onto connection where they find it. In Swift’s novella he proffers that we are all fuel, born to burn, some more quickly than others – he suggests that the saddest of lives are those that burn away slowly, never catching fire at all. This film smoulders with life.

Mothering Sunday is released in UK cinemas on 12 November.

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