Mothering Sunday (2021)

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“How lucky, to be comprehensively bereaved at birth. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

This quietly beautiful film by Eva Husson (based on the novel by Graham Swift) at first seems to be about the epidemic of grief after 900,000 British men were killed in the ‘Great War.’ We see through the eyes of Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), an orphan working as a maid for Lord and Lady Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman) in the early 1920s.

It is Mothers’ Day (called Mothering Sunday in Britain) and the Nivens are preparing for an annual picnic with family friends the Sheringhams and the Hobdays. The Nivens have lost their only two sons in the war and the Sheringhams have lost their two eldest, leaving only Paul (Josh O’Connor) to shoulder most of the survivor’s guilt. It should be a happy day, with the announcement of the engagement of the only other surviving child, Emma Hobday, but all of the upper class decorum and societal expectation can barely keep a lid on the palpable grief of the parents.

The opening quote is said by Lady Niven to Jane as she gently undresses her, removing her jewellery almost ceremoniously at the end of the day. It’s a pivotal moment that emphasises the chasm between the classes as well as the selfishness of grief. For Jane has suffered loss as well, something that we know but that, by necessity, must remain hidden. And the loss of parents at birth might save you from the keenness of emotion but not the profundity of loss in a society that awards privilege based on birthright and name.

We travel slowly with Jane through her experience, with as much attention given to light through smoke, the feel and smell of books and the wind in her hair as she cycles in the sunshine as to the more dramatic mileposts of the day. Although grief permeates each languid scene and character, through the jumble of timescapes we begin to understand that we are being shown Jane’s memories as she writes them toward the end of her life (played deliciously by Glenda Jackson). Isn’t every life filled with loss when we look back on it?

It feels existential as Jane, through imagination, intent, daring and the passage of generations, transcends the small life she is born in to. Is it all true? Perhaps not but, in her retelling, the fourth leg of the horse is hers.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts.

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