CANNES, France – France counts a growing number of filmmakers making cool cinema and getting their films into festivals like Cannes, Berlin and the Biennale. Names such as Julia Ducournau (“Grave”), Hafsia Herzi (“Bonne Mère”) and Eva Husson come to mind, all of whom are presenting films this year at Cannes.
The latter has directed her fourth film, “Mothering Sunday.” Her previous work, “The Girls of the Sun,” left me cold, but this new film, which stars Colin Firth, Josh O’Connor and Olivia Colman from “The Crown” and Australian actress Odessa Young in the role of a novelist-in-waiting working as a maid for England’s bourgeoisie at the end of World War I, has been the height of sensibility and virtuosity, a charged, slow and pleasurable film, adapted from the namesake book by Graham Swift.
Jane Fairchild (Young) was given up for adoption at birth, she works as a maid for the Niven family at Beechwood House. Her affair with the only boy of another nearby well-to-do family, the Sheringhams, is, assuredly, doomed, but not in the way you might have expected. Paul Sheringham is played by Josh O’Connor, he shall be marrying someone of his social standing in due course.
All around the Sheringhams and the Nivens death has lorded it over. The sons of both families, friends to one another, have gone to war, and never returned. The only one left who’s still alive is Paul.
In one scene where she’s helping Olivia Colman’s Lady Niven, permanently grief-stricken by the loss of her other son, remove her jewelry before she turns in, Niven muses, how freeing, to have no family at all (meaning, to not have suffered any loss, like she has), “to have been comprehensively bereaved at birth.” That last sentence struck me, as much for its literary thrust as for the piqued envy it reveals.
Fairchild’s affair with the Sheringham boy is interspersed, somewhat randomly, with scenes of the families picnicing together by a lake, the first time that Paul and Jane met (in town, near a market), and Jane later in life, taking up with a handsome philosopher (Sope Dirisu). The intemporal pacing of “Mothering Sunday,” the jumping from one time period to the next, backward, forward, it is audacious but it works.
This adaptation, the novel before it, is very contemporary. Jane Fairchild draws her strength, coming up in the world all on her own, from a rich interior life, captivated as she is, by men, those things one normal aspires to at this age, but, especially, by literature.
The “Mothering Sunday” effect is that of those, like Jane Fairchild, who survive and who write the stories.
This is Husson’s first English-language film.