Where do writers come from? Are they born or made? Can observational skills be learned and perfected, or must the instinct reside in you to begin with? Those are some of the questions that Eva Husson’s intimate but piercing little film Mothering Sunday addresses, directly or otherwise. Jane (Odessa Young), a young housemaid in 1924 England, uses her day off for a secret assignation with Paul (Josh O’Connor), a toff from a neighboring estate who’s engaged to be married to a class-appropriate beauty (Emma D’Arcy). Paul’s house is empty: the servants are off visiting their mothers for the holiday; his parents are at a luncheon, one at which he too is expected to make an appearance; and his brothers are dead, killed in the war. His heart is still heavy, and in bed with Jane, he finds respite from his melancholy.
Though Jane cares for Paul, their class differences don’t make her needy or vulnerable. She enjoys sleeping with him, but she isn’t looking to him for longtime fulfilment. She has her sights set on something else: she’s going to become a writer, but that isn’t so much an ambition as a drive that lives deep inside her. (The much older Jane, the one who has turned her experiences into a life’s work, is played by a brusquely moving Glenda Jackson.) In one of the film’s most remarkable scenes, Jane pads alone, naked and self-assured, through Paul’s large, drafty house, examining paintings, furniture, and the books in the library before heading to the kitchen for some meat pie and a bottle of beer—she belches after a hearty swig of the latter.
Mothering Sunday—adapted by Alice Birch from Graham Swift’s 2016 novel of the same name—is set in a sorrowful period of British history, when so many were mourning their lost sons. (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman play such a couple, buttoned up in their grief.) The picture is a bit arty and decorous; it could do with fewer swimmy camera moves. But Young vests it with a fascinating, flinty grace. Never a victim, Jane keeps moving toward what she wants, resilient even in the face of loss. Her life is one big exploration, too far-reaching even for the walls of a grand country manor.
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