“I could tell you all my secrets, all the things nobody says.”
Some films just seem so foolproof, that you feel like you not only know what you’re in for but that everything about it should work. That’s not to say that despite the right cast, director, setting, dialogue, and all the other components required to come together to make a film, there’s still a specific synergy necessary to make it all work. It’s that synergy which the new Sony Pictures Classics period drama Mothering Sunday is so clearly lacking. With more characters than it knows what to do with and a plot that weaves around through eras and timelines, the whole affair comes across as both surprisingly tame and a bit jumbled, even with all the necessary ingredients needed to succeed.
Taking place in the English countryside in the days following WWI, Mothering Sunday centers on Jane (Odessa Young), a young maid to a wealthy couple named Godfrey and Clairre (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman). On one casual springtime Sunday, Jane is given the day to herself, which she uses as a chance to have an encounter with Paul (Josh O’Connor), the son of a wealthy family and her secret lover, who also happens to be engaged to Emma (Emma D’Arcy), a close friend of Godfrey and Clairre.
It’s difficult to point to any one aspect of Mothering Sunday as being responsible for its downfall as a film since there’s so much that just doesn’t work. Sure, the physical setting is ideal, the cast is more than game (not to mention ridiculously capable) and the time period is catnip for the kind of cinephile Mothering Sunday is hoping to win over. As I said before, this so totally should have been a case of an audience member knowing what they’re getting into and everything falling into place.
But Mothering Sunday sabotages itself in a bid to stand apart from other titles in the frock drama genre. The architecture of the film is all over, switching between the titular Sunday, Jane’s life a few years down the line and the years after that, which look at her days as an accomplished author. The fact that all of these eras are shuffled around so carelessly is bad enough, but the film also has us go back and forth in the present day by showing how Jane came to work for her employers and her first meeting with Paul. It’s all just a tad exhausting. The main casualty of this, however, is that all the supporting characters get shortchanged, despite being tossed small moments.
If there’s one item that succeeds over the trite script (the dialogue is less than inspiring) and jumping between decades, it’s the film’s philosophical undertones. Mothering Sunday calls into question just how much we define ourselves by our memories and experiences even if we are not always conscious of such a fact. The film succeeds in driving home the point that what we remember makes up a large part of our present-day existence. Seeing Jane in her later years accentuates this as she finds herself still revisiting that “moment in time” romance that shaped the rest of her life. Once it becomes clear that a romance between her and Paul could never happen, we see a liberated Jane come into her own and undergo a progression that’s incredibly liberating, even if the past still haunts her.
As far as performances go, the two leads are the only ones who come away with anything worthy of their time. Young and O’Connor have such a beautiful chemistry together that makes their time on screen worth everything else the film tries to shove in. In their hands, Jane and Paul are stripped away of their respective social standings and emerge as two beings bound by a passion neither of them has any control over.
Sadly, the rest of the cast can’t help but come off as wasted, despite giving some great, worthwhile turns. Colman and Firth, in particular, feel like they belong in an entirely different film, one that actually cares enough to dig deep into the state of their fragile marriage. Even the legendary Glenda Jackson, who appears in a glorified cameo as the older Jane, is given so little to do, it’s a wonder how the filmmakers were able to get the two-time Oscar-winner in the first place.
I realize I might be coming down on this movie a little harder than I probably should. Please don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing egregiously wrong with the film, it’s just far less than what it was obviously aiming to be. For some, however, the film’s Merchant/Ivory-lite story and its over-qualified cast will be enough for them. As I’ve been writing this review, I’ve found that I can’t dismiss Mothering Sunday entirely, even though it would have made things a whole lot easier if I could. The truth of the matter is that regardless of its apparent shortcomings, it’s far from a waste of time. Actually, I suppose this is the kind of film that’s just right for a Sunday afternoon.