Love doesn’t tend to discriminate based on the factors that often separate people, like gender, race, or social status, but that doesn’t spare the people involved from the influence of the world on their relationship. Two individuals may determine that they transcend what society tells them is acceptable, but getting others to agree is usually much more difficult, especially if they are set in their ways and beholden to tradition. Mothering Sunday spotlights one such forbidden romance where passion may still not be powerful enough to overcome fate.
Jane (Odessa Young) grew up as an orphan, and has found her way into the service of the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), who are now childless after losing their soldier sons in World War I. When Jane meets their neighbor, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), who did return from the battlefields but without any of his friends or siblings, they begin an affair. Though she knows that Paul is set to marry another woman, Jane dreams and imagines what their life would be like together in moments of intimacy and isolation.
There are many themes at play in this cinematic adaptation of the 2016 novel of the same name by Graham Swift. On the surface, class differences are apparent, and no one would even suspect that Jane and Paul would be indulging in anything resembling a relationship since it simply wasn’t heard of or considered. Yet there is a deep heartbreak underneath that defines so much of how the Nivens, the Sheringhams, and an entire generation looked at their lives as a result of the great loss suffered in war.
The Nivens treat Jane well enough, but they have both retreated into themselves in a way that no longer permits them to interact as people. Mrs. Niven in particular rarely says anything, and when she does, it usually comes out tinged with spitefulness since she has assigned blame for events that have happened on those who remain in her immediate vicinity, most notably her husband. Paul too is affected by the guilt he feels for having lived and the way that his parents heap expectations upon him because he is all that they have left.
This is, however, a story from Jane’s perspective, and she is familiar with loss of a different kind. She doesn’t entirely know herself because she is an orphan, and she sees boundaries and divisions in a different way, aware of them and the need to respect them but not beholden to their limitations. She doesn’t seem to fear her affair with Paul being discovered, and instead worries about the inevitability of being abandoned, relegated to anonymity when Paul’s life must eventually resume.
The moments that Jane and Paul spend together are extraordinary, and they convey the deepest power of this story. Both characters are nude for nearly all their shared scenes, indicating an element of comfort and intimacy not often found in high society in 1924 England. Once Paul has left, Jane wanders around the house without any clothes, taking stock of that which she has full access to in that moment and will likely never be able to attain again once Paul has resumed his expected course.
Director Eva Husson returns to TIFF for the third time with this contemplative, haunting picture of doomed love. The score by Morgan Kibby highlights the beauty of relationships and imagination and how they only seldom go together. Young is a talent who has already delivered a number of strong film and TV performances, and O’Connor, best known for playing Prince Charles in Netflix’s The Crown, tries for a slightly different version of the kind of work he’s done before. This film is a well-assembled and poignant period piece whose message still resonates today.
Mothering Sunday is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations section and will be released in theaters by Sony Pictures Classics on November 19th.