Memories are all we leave behind. The entirety of our psyches is made of memory and experience, and like all memories, there are good and bad… and then there are the formative. The ones we carry with us for the rest of our lives, the ones that leave their mark on us and dictate who we are. Eva Husson’s quiet adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel Mothering Sunday is an examination of these memories which tie us forever to someone, for good or ill.
Each person in our path stands to leave an imprint on us, as housemaid Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) discovers in her time working for the Niven family. While Godfrey (Colin Firth) and Clarrie (Olivia Colman) are proper toward Jane, she takes great care to stay out of their way while they mourn the loss of their sons in World War I. Godfrey’s keeping calm and carrying on while Clarrie is struck with sadness, at times unable or unwilling to communicate anything about her grief. The stiff upper lip, as it’s called.
It’s this grief that makes Jane’s affair with engaged neighbor Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor) all the more vital and life-affirming, especially considering he lost his brothers to the war as well. Clinging to every moment she can to give herself light, she takes her day off – which happens to be Mothering Sunday – to go for a ride to Paul’s house while his parents lunch with the Nivens and his fiancée Emma (Emma D’Arcy). But that day will hold more surprises than Paul’s random invitation, coloring Jane’s future and her coping mechanisms.
Eva Husson operates with a slow hand, not to tease the film out, but instead to put us wholly in step with Jane and the light to which she is drawn. The first time we see her, it’s in her room before sunrise; she lights a candle, almost as if to ward away the darkness that envelopes her. Jamie Ramsay’s photography ties Jane to the light, not in any kind of frivolous or maudlin way, nor is it something that’s made overt by any bit of dialogue. This bond between Jane and the light just… is.
It’s not anything to do with her nature – it just is. It must be. After what she experiences throughout her life – the film jumps forward and backward without much warning, and we see what’s become of her – the presence of light in every scene she’s in is almost a character in itself. Truthfully, light exposes everything. Who we are. Life, whether it’s ours or someone else’s. And when we’re at our most naked, our wonders, hopes, sorrows, and intentions are made all the more evident in the light.
The broken-hearted underpinnings of Mothering Sunday are likewise affected by the light, putting the Nivens and Sheringham’s losses and sense of loss into sharp relief as they gather for their al fresco meal. Jane is soon to lose Paul to marriage, and her sadness at this is barely concealed, the weight of it throwing both Paul and Jane into solitude, even when they’re in the same room together. The life she could have had with Paul is shown in vivid brightness, as she saunters through his estate, wandering from room to room and almost imagining what could have been.
It’s a heavy and heavily emotional film, and Eva Husson takes her time to fully wrap us in these events which lay the foundations of Jane’s life. Mothering Sunday asks us how to deal with hurtful scars that are beautiful and memorable at the same time. Scars that we wouldn’t trade for anything. It’s what we do with the lessons earned with those scars that make us who we are. Do we trust? Do we love? Or do we turn away from the possibility of either? Mothering Sunday deals with these questions in Husson’s lyrical visual language, a song sweet and sad that rings through generations, leaving us with only our memories.