Something that more recent films have failed to recapture in their latent (frequently chaste) depictions of love and lust is that wanting, and not receiving, is often far more erotic than the act of sex itself. Take, for example, the characters of Gerri Kellman (J. Cameron-Smith) and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) on the HBO series Succession. Fans were positively titillated by the odd couple’s will-they-won’t-they dynamic, where their flirtatious and perverse, semi-Oedipal rapport literally comes to a head. This happens in an episode where Gerri is able to bring Roman—who has struggles with sex and intimacy—to self-stimulated climax by calling him derogatory names while he is on the other side of a closed door. Once season 3 began, fans were frantic to see Gerri and Roman finally consummate (even though it has been argued that Roman’s masturbation with Gerri’s assistance is Roman’s true means of intercourse; but that’s a whole other discussion).
But what those desperate to see the flippant, billionaire heir to an entertainment conglomerate ravish his father’s longtime business associate nearly twice his age failed to grasp at the time is what makes the Roman/Gerri dynamic so titillating in the first place: Longing. It’s what makes having a new crush feel so overwhelming; what makes people chase after someone who doesn’t want them. Being denied love and affection, or not having it quite yet, can be thrilling, and can be more thrilling than when it is requited. We can’t help but be enthralled and intrigued by what we can’t have. Thus, a large part of what makes Eva Husson’s interpretation of Mothering Sunday (adapted by playwright Alice Birch from Graham Swift’s novel) so engrossing is this depiction of an aching, desperate love—even if the fraught pair at the center of the narrative are, in fact, able to touch one another with ease. But the adulterous couple in question, young housekeeper Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) and wealthy bachelor/law student Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), are nonetheless kept apart in all ways except physically. Their carnal intimacy is shrouded by the lingering reminder of both their economic and class distinctions, and Paul’s impending marriage to another woman (Emma D’Arcy).
In the present day, Jane tends to the home of older married couple Clarrie (Olivia Colman) and Godfrey Niven (Colin Firth, whose obsession with the nice weather is very funny). She has had a sexual relationship with Paul, the couple’s neighbor, since her arrival at their home many years ago. On the eponymous Mothering Sunday (the English response to Mother’s Day), Godfrey gives Jane the rest of her day off. She’s then invited by Paul to spend the afternoon at his impressive estate, while his parents, the Nivens and his fiancée and her parents all have lunch together prior to Paul’s own arrival to the occasion. Paul puts off his summoned presence until the last possible moment, in order to enjoy the pleasures of his debauchery with Jane. The pair’s sex scenes are erotic and decadent, and O’Connor and Young have riveting chemistry. Meanwhile, the camera finds equal eroticism in non-sexual acts, like a sequence in which Paul undresses Jane that’s framed largely in hovering, patient close-ups. During intercourse, the camera cradles their bodies similarly, dawdling on awkward yet seductive movements and positions; Paul’s face hanging just over Jane’s nipple, or their chins resting on top of one another as Jane’s body lays on Paul’s.
The narrative vacillates between this Mothering Sunday and years later, after Jane has left working for the Nivens and become a writer and wife to philosopher Donald (Sope Dirisu). The transitions between timelines can be more than a little disorienting, especially when the future itself is halved into its own dissections of time period. But these shifts are, at least, articulated exquisitely through the film’s editing, as body movements give way to new periods in Jane’s life. Husson’s camera is, indeed, preoccupied with the bodies of its subjects, opening on Jane’s face, then cutting to a tight close-up on Paul’s lips as he speaks to her. Throughout the film, Husson emphasizes flesh in relation to something deeper, more human and far less tangible—like Paul’s sterile engagement to Emma, where both are physically coupled yet merely obligated to one another out of social necessity. Meanwhile, Paul and Jane can make love and feel connected while undoubtedly kept apart. The tragic irony of physical closeness.
But Mothering Sunday portrays a type of cinematic sensuality which has been noticeably few and far between in modern films, even those on the fringes of the mainstream. This eroticism is furthered by the chronic yearning between the two young people, their sexual indulgence all the more fervent due to the fact that they cannot ever have one another completely. I would be remiss not to mention that amidst the vast sum of nudity in Mothering Sunday, the film actually allows O’Connor to hang glorious, full-frontal dong, leveling the playing field with Young. Of course, the nudity is not simply for nudity’s sake, as Husson explained when the film premiered at Cannes last July. Husson intentionally put more of an emphasis on her subjects’ fully naked bodies in context with dialogue scenes rather than in sex scenes, looking to establish intimacy through Jane and Paul as people as opposed to solely through sexual acts. Husson’s depiction of sexuality through camera and script permits a filmic romance that is arousing, honest and, above all, painfully coveted.
Yet, Mothering Sunday ends on a somewhat confusing and, at the same time, overly sentimental note, toeing a dangerous line into Lifetime Channel territory and betraying the sumptuous first two acts. The narrative attempts to tie things up into a neat bow which doesn’t necessarily correlate with the journey it took to get there, suddenly becoming a very different film that is not so sure-footed. But the finale still proves an affecting consideration of loss, profound heartache and what a person does with their grief—like Olivia Colman’s little-used but still compelling Clarrie, whose two sons’ deaths have turned her into something of a functioning catatonic. While countered by a throughline which is a bit on-the-nose—that loss comes for us all, and that what matters is how we choose to live with it—Mothering Sunday still succeeds as a moving, beautifully crafted and sensual period picture.
Director: Eva Husson
Writers: Alice Birch
Starring: Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Olivia Colman, Colin Firth
Release Date: March 25, 2022
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.