Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 4, 2022)
Three Oscar-winning actors play supporting roles in 2021’s Mothering Sunday. A period piece, the film takes us to England circa 1924.
Young adult orphan Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) works as a housemaid for Godfrey and Claire Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman). When they go out for Mother’s Day, Jane uses this free time to get together with secret lover Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor).
Jane and Paul need to keep their relationship on the DL because he already plans to marry Emma Hobday (Emma D'Arcy), another member of high society. As Jane and Paul go through the day, various issues complicate circumstances, with long-term consequences.
That synopsis implies a much more straightforward narrative than Sunday actually delivers. Though not clear at the start, we really view events through the eyes of Somewhat Older Jane (also Young) and Much Older Jane (Glenda Jackson).
This means that a lot of Sunday comes depicted through the hazy gaze of memory. It also connotes that we shouldn’t accept what we view as objective truth but instead as reflections of an older person who looks back at her youth.
Does any of this serve much clear purpose? I guess, as it leaves us with the question of how reliable a narrator Jane is since we see so much through the gauzy filter of romanticized memory.
This choice to take things from Somewhat Older Jane’s POV leads to an impressionistic vibe that creates some unusual choices. For instance, the film glimpses drinks, food, cigarettes and the like in an oddly accentuated manner that implies Somewhat Older Jane remembers sensory aspects of the past more than concrete actions.
In theory, I appreciate this unusual style and form of ambition, but I suspect it works better as a novel than as a movie. Despite many exceptions, film remains a pretty literal medium, so the flights of fancy/potential distortions of reality can confuse the viewer.
I don’t want that to imply every movie needs to stay wholly grounded in reality, of course, but Sunday just doesn’t pull off the shifts in perspective especially well. The jumps from Jane to Somewhat Older Jane tend not to flow smoothly, and the two parts fail to connect at times.
One definitely shouldn’t expect a plot-driven tale here, as Sunday does remain in that vein of “romanticized memory” much of the time. Various events occur – with one major bombshell that I will leave undisclosed to avoid spoilers – but much of the movie stays flexible and without clear narrative drive.
Again, this shows potential, but the end result lacks the momentum it needs. The audience can only take so much loosey-goosey before a desire for something more compelling to occur, and Sunday veers away from that too often.
Despite their star power, don’t expect much from Firth or Colman, as their talents seem somewhat wasted in limited roles. Young does fine as our lead, at least, which becomes important given how much she dominates the film.
I do respect the ambition and unusual perspective of Mothering Sunday. The end result just feels too scattered to really click, however.