Verdict: Sad, gorgeous and ineffably English
For two hours in Cannes last weekend, being English felt like a real privilege. I’m not referring to a certain football match, at the conclusion of which this French Riviera town felt like a suburb of Turin, such was the dancing in bars and parping of horns.
No, I mean the premiere of Mothering Sunday, a film so ineffably English that it’s hard to imagine anyone else truly grasping all its nuances.
As if to prove it, a German critic told me, minus a fierce expletive, that she found it extremely boring. It might be as well that it is not in competition for the prestigious Palme d’Or. But I adored it.
An adaptation of Graham Swift’s 2016 novel, the story unfolds, mostly, on Mother’s Day in 1924.
Mothering Sunday is a film so ineffably English that it’s hard to imagine anyone else truly grasping all its nuances
Jane Fairchild (charmingly played by the Australian actress Odessa Young) is a maid at the handsome Home Counties house of the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), over whom the long shadow of the Great War still falls.
They, like their friends the Sheringhams, lost sons on the Western Front.
Firth performs his kindly, repressed, upper-class Englishman act to absolute perfection.
But in a way Colman is the cleverer piece of casting. We’re so used to that toothy dazzler of hers, a smile that could light up a dark night, that not to see it at all is faintly perturbing.
Mrs Niven, it emerges, was a pile of fun in the old days. But now she radiates nothing except misery and irascibility, and her daily trigger is her mild husband’s attempted bonhomie: ‘Godfrey, for goodness’ sake!’ she snaps, her fuse shortened by grief. So much for the Jazz Age.
So often in the movies, the 1920s roar. Here they weep.
Meanwhile, and here’s the nub of the story, Jane is having a passionate affair with the Sheringhams’ only surviving son, Paul (Josh O’Connor), a law student who is about to marry the imperious daughter of a third set of friends, the Hobdays.
On an unseasonally warm Mothering Sunday, when nice Mr Niven gives Jane the day off, she cycles over to the Sheringhams’ house for a tryst with Paul, before he has to motor down to Henley for a champagne lunch and stilted conversation.
His parents are waiting for him on the banks of the Thames, with their dear friends, the Nivens and Hobdays — and Paul’s moody fiancee.
Alice Birch’s beautifully crafted screenplay moves us back and forth through time, with a cameo for Glenda Jackson as the elderly Jane Fairchild.
By the time we get to Jane in her dotage, we know just how unlucky she has been in love, but also what a success she has made of her professional life.
Jane Fairchild (charmingly played by the Australian actress Odessa Young) is a maid at the handsome Home Counties house of the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), over whom the long shadow of the Great War still falls
A foundling, raised in an orphanage, she went into service at 14, then left the Nivens’ employ to work in a bookshop and eventually became a feted writer.
These flashes back and forward gradually fill in the story; it’s like doing a really pleasurable jigsaw.
But the spiritual heart of the film is when Jane, left alone at the Sheringhams’ after Paul has gone to join people of his own class, languidly wanders naked around the big house, further defying all the social rules she is already breaking by being his secret lover.
There’s a lot of nudity in this film, including a lingering full-frontal of O’Connor, which I wouldn’t mention except that his lovely performance is strikingly reminiscent of his Prince Charles in The Crown — a posh young man in love with the wrong woman — and so it’s rather startling to get such an eyeful of, as it were, the crown jewels.
Olivia Colman is the cleverer piece of casting. We’re so used to that toothy dazzler of hers, a smile that could light up a dark night, that not to see it at all is faintly perturbing
Plinky piano and mournful strings abound throughout, but the music is as impeccably judged as everything else and, as I say, it couldn’t be more English. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the director is a French woman, Eva Husson.
So maybe I’m wrong to assume that to really get it you have to come from the land of hope and glory.
After all, the film it most reminded me of was directed by an American, Joseph Losey: The Go-Between (1971) — another frightfully English period tale of forbidden love and unseasonal heat.
There is no UK release date for Mothering Sunday yet.