Take the doomed romance of Atonement, the stiff upper lips of Downton Abbey and the raunch of Bridgerton and you’d probably land somewhere around Eva Husson's Mothering Sunday, a period drama with bold ambitions to inject something thought-provoking into an often drab genre. Steamy sex scenes, stained bedsheets and full-frontal nudity pepper the scenes but the film looks at nakedness in every meaning of the word: who we are underneath our clothes, what being stripped of certain things can mean for us in life.
Penned by Succession and Normal People screenwriter Alice Birch and starring the likes of beloved Oscar-winners Olivia Colman and Colin Firth, the film is primed with all the ingredients for a winning formula. It is 1924, five years after World War I has ended, and in the English countryside of Berkshire bereaved families mourn the losses of their sons on the French battlefields. Jane Fairchild (Australian actress Odessa Young) is an orphaned maid working for the Niven family (Colman and Firth) on a grand estate and having a secret, passionate affair with Paul (Josh O’Connor), the only surviving son of the neighbouring Sheringham family. Their trysts are all the more forbidden due to the fact that Paul is soon to be married to the immaculate Emma D’Arcy, daughter of another neighbouring family, who was set to marry Paul’s deceased brother. The shadow of death hangs heavy, permeating the lives and unsaid words of all families – particularly Lady Niven (Colman), a glassy-eyed statue traumatised by the loss of her sons.
On this particular Mothering Sunday, the families have met for a blisteringly uncomfortable lunch and the servants have been given the day off – including Jane, who slinks off to meet Paul for the last time. A cataclysmic tragedy ensues which devastates the lives of everyone involved. The film’s timeline jumps around, rather jarringly, coursing towards the tragic event: into the future, when Jane is an accomplished writer with other lovers who never quite match up to Paul, but always returning to this fateful afternoon, the consequences of which ripple throughout.
"I like watching a man dress," says Jane in one scene, a flash-forward to her in bed with another partner, philosopher Donald (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). This theme permeates the film – namely, our clothes and what status they signify, who we become when we put them on and what is left when we take them off.
One memorably transgressive scene lingers in the mind. After Paul and Jane meet for their last afternoon of forbidden passion, Paul leaves late to attend the lunch and Jane is left to her own devices, exploring his grand manor house – naked, no less. With no regard for potential consequences, she wanders around the empty rooms empowered in her nudity, drinking ale, eating food from their kitchen, reading books and even smoking in the library. It’s a powerful image: a servant girl naked, confident and comfortable in the hallway of a lady and lord’s house, daring to move so freely in a way that the ruling classes could never have the freedom to do. Naked, Jane and Paul are equals but in a scene where Paul slowly dresses, each piece of expensive clothing serves to widen and emphasise the class difference between the two of them. He finishes with his signet ring, bearing his family crest, and it feels like the spell of their tryst is broken. He is restricted, once again, from doing or saying what he wants – from loving who he wants. The opposite is true for Jane, who finds agency and internal power in its purest form when she strips herself of her uniform and defiantly traverses the grounds of her employers. In this house, in this form, in this exact moment she transcends her position and class.
Just as we are all the same under our clothes, the film hammers home that loss, tragedy and grief do not discriminate depending on social standing. Death has ravaged the Niven family and Lady Niven perceives orphaned Jane to be without this burden. "To have been comprehensively bereaved at birth – you have absolutely nothing to lose," she says. "And you never shall. Not really. That is a gift Jane, and you must learn to use it." The crippling despair and mourning following the loss of a loved one will never tarnish Jane’s life like it has Lady Niven's. Jane's 'nakedness' – of family and connection, stripped since birth – makes her freer than them all.
Fans of period dramas will no doubt love the languid pacing, objectively attractive cast and the fact that male and female nudity are equally rife, which removes any voyeuristic element. Plus, the film’s comment on how grief fills up like a well inside of us feels particularly apt in a year where many have accrued loss after loss with little gain. But Firth and Colman are frustratingly underutilised and it’s hard to cut through the film's dense, time-hopping structure. The fleeting exploration of some scenes and unnecessarily drawn out length of others makes it hard to get to the core of the interesting points the film is trying to make about grief, enduring sadness and the politics of naked bodies. In Mothering Sunday, for all the nakedness, there isn’t much intimacy at all.
Mothering Sunday is in UK cinemas from 12th November.