It’s a curious quirk of the British calendar that Mother’s Day — or Mothering Sunday, if you want to be formal about it — falls not in May, with all that month’s springy symbolism of new life, but the damp, unripe chill of mid-March, when no one feels much like celebrating anything at all. In “Mothering Sunday,” however, a number of upper-class English families meet to picnic on a day so unseasonably warm and bright that the weather is the one safe running topic of conversation: It’s a gathering of more parents than children, where unspoken and unspeakable losses are politely talked around. If Graham Swift’s 2016 novella was a guest at the same elegant, repressed garden party as L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between” and Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” Eva Husson and screenwriter Alice Birch’s unusual, stimulating adaptation comes closer to the shattered experimentalism of Joseph Losey than the heritage-minded handsomeness of Joe Wright.
And that’s a good thing, even if French director Husson’s attempt to reinvent the language of British period cinema in predominantly sensual terms is hit and miss, yielding some passages of vivid, tactile clarity and others of fussy affectation. Husson, who turned heads with her libidinous teen drama “Bang Gang” before stumbling with 2018’s superficial war film “Girls of the Sun,” is an unexpected choice of helmer for this material, but succeeds in giving it some youthful, angular attitude: At every turn, it’s easy to imagine the less interesting BBC teleplay this might easily have been. In the U.S., Sony Pictures Classics will count on the film’s fresh approach — plus the marketability of a cast including recent “Crown”-mates Josh O’Connor and Olivia Colman — to hook audiences, though not all will warm to its oblique literary flourishes.
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It’s in the storytelling, rather than the stylization, that Husson and Birch come a little unstuck. Though “Mothering Sunday” ambitiously traces its female protagonist’s romantic trauma and creative awakening across three stages of her life, it only appears truly interested in the first of them: that balmy Sunday in March 1924, when quiet, bookish 22-year-old housemaid Jane (Odessa Young) experiences a tragedy that follows, or indeed propels, her through the rest of the century.
An orphan without any family of her own, Jane works for the Nivens (Colman and Colin Firth), a terribly proper and terribly unhappy pair of upper-crusters whose marriage has been hollowed out since losing their sons to the First World War. But it’s the Givens’ neighbors the Sheringhams in whom Jane is more invested: She’s been having an affair with their surviving son Paul (Josh O’Connor), a rakish law student reluctantly engaged to Emma (a cool, cutting Emma D’Arcy), the daughter of another neighboring household, despite neither party seeming especially keen on the arrangement.
So the tryst that Paul arranges with Jane that Sunday, while all three families are out at a joyless Mother’s Day lunch, should be their last: The class politics that prevent their long-term union are so entrenched that they have no need to talk about them. Perhaps Paul and Jane have never talked much about anything at all. The sex is the thing between them, and Husson presents it with loose, frank, in-broad-daylight carnality: Cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay (fresh from Oliver Hermanus’ “Moffie,” and further marking himself as one to watch) shoots bodies in tight, quivering close-up, flooded in sunlight that doesn’t tastefully bleach everything out: We linger, too, on the emphatic stain of bodily fluids on fresh linens.
This lushly filmed spell of afternoon delight is the film’s centerpiece, its brief sensual abandon reverberating through the film’s nonlinear meditations on what came before and after. It’s salty-skinned impact is such that a secondary strand, depicting the middle-aged Jane’s differently curtailed romance with free-thinking philosophy student Donald (a wonderful, sold-short Sope Dirisu) in the 1950s, never takes flight by comparison, thus setting the film peculiarly off-balance. It feels more a distraction from Jane’s arc than an enrichment of it; that we miss O’Connor’s wiry, softly seductive presence is at least apt. The barely aged-up Odessa Young, so luminous as the younger Jane, is less convincing as her 56-year-old self, no longer a maid but released into the very different servitude of a writing career.
By the time we jump to the century’s close, Young is replaced by Glenda Jackson, making her first feature film appearance in over 30 years. That alone makes “Mothering Sunday” something of an event, and the film somewhat relies on that external pathos to lift the film’s sketchiest and most opaque segment, teased in flashing, cryptic cutaways throughout, but without much of a payoff. Birch, the on-the-rise scribe of 2017’s “Lady Macbeth,” doesn’t quite get her three timelines to converse with each other, though individual scenes are written with pointed, piercing intelligence: Colman, whose seemingly stock lady-of-the-manor role has been notably expanded from the book, gets the film’s most lacerating speech, as she muses on the burden of mourning and urges Jane to turn her orphanhood to her advantage: “You have nothing to lose and never shall.”
“Mothering Sunday” is best when it trades in this kind of cruel, poignant precision, as opposed to gauzy interludes of less specific but gorgeously rendered atmosphere. Still, even at its most purely decorative, Husson’s aesthetic decisions are rarely generic. The punchy blue-and-red palette of Sandy Powell’s perfectly cut-and-cinched costumes may lean a little too broadly into heart-on-literal-sleeve emotional expression, but you can’t stop looking at them; likewise, the film leans heavily on Morgan Kibby’s plangent score, but its strings-to-synths transitions are arresting. Telling a story that advocates living boldly over not living at all, Husson has followed suit, opening up exciting new possibilities for her career in the process.