Harlan Jacobson reports from The Cannes Film Festival 2021: Eva Husson's Mothering Sunday

CANNES, Sunday July 18 –
By Harlan Jacobson

Over at the high end of the marketing continuum is Mothering Sunday. The story is set post World War I.  In service to the Nivens, (Olivia Colman and Colin Firth), is Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), who aside from front line duties like appearing with the silver breakfast tray and saying, “Your breakfast, Suh,” steals into the great house’s library and, you know, reads. That’s as opposed to the other gull in suhviss, a maid whose overall presentation is reminiscent of Olive Oyl’s: thin.

Directed by Eva Husson from Alice Burch’s script of Graham Swift’s novella, Mothering Sunday shades with femdom England’s Big Topic, the fall of the aristocracy and the rise of the working-class meritocracy, that Working Class revolution you’ve heard so much about.

Rather than having to do any brutish shoving aside of the useless British at the top, the story kills off four of the five Sheringham sons offscreen in the Great War, leaving son Paul Sheringham -- very good people just down the road -- played by Josh O’Connor, who is fair minded enough to have an affair with the Niven neighbor’s servant, Jane Fairchild, but not so as to actually marry her.  Jane’s fun and all that, smart, pays acute attention to detail, and while a reader, at 19 or so, a bit unworldly — how could she be anything else?

In short, Jane can’t marry her way in or up, but she’s certainly much better than romp material, á la that wench in Tom Jones who distracted the poor Jones from Squire Western’s daughter, the golden Sophie. Jane is in the central period of the story an intellectual equal to Paul, who doesn’t so much fill up the screen as exist as a soft hum inside it. Until he doesn’t. What he and everyone else misses, besides the editor of the film at the point Paul takes a convenient hit in the script, is that Jane is the future.

Editor Emilie Orsini skips the narrative back and forth in time -- from its opening on English Mothering Sunday, 1924, when the Niven household is off to lunch with their friends the Sheringhams and the Hobdays to celebrate the engagement of Paul to Emma Hobday -- to 50 years or so later. That’s when Jane Fairchild is played by Glenda Jackson, a wizened Valkyrie of letters and prizes—Man Booker, Nobel, what have you. No biggie, she’s won them all, she tells the obligatory knot of baby reporters waiting outside her door on news of the latest. The last has become first.

Watching this is not only to wallow in the same futility of aristocracy deal-making inside the narrative but effectively to see it at work in the filmmaking itself, the art of the deal done British style. Bloody hell, can you beat this: the re-pairing of the new Queen of British cinema, Colman, who plays Mrs. Niven, with O’Connor, who’d played her mash potato son, Prince Charles, in Netflix’s mega-hit The Crown! Must have seemed like the aha moment in the casting. Add in Colin Firth, the new King of British cinema, and all the elements fall into place to hit a demographic. Film is also a business, and the understandable result here is not so much art as an artful impression geared to play off so as to not lose one’s shirt. Or as the case may be here, dress.

That’s what’s new in the triumphant working-class genre: the story sets the young Fairchild servant from the Nivens loose to walk around the Sheringham manor house nude, all starkers, after a tryst with the young scion, Paul, who gives her instructions to lock up after he drives off sporty-style to meet the gull to whom he’s pledged in the usual dreary marriage of inbred bloodlines at the top. Left to her own vices, Mothering Sunday lets us glory in Jane’s naked ambitions, as she takes a stroll through the shell of the aristocracy — which I guess qualifies as a novel addition to the canon of working-class blokes rising from servant to the OBE, or other badges of power and influence. The sequence is the movie.

Playing in the new section here, Cannes Premieres, meaning biggish but no point in subjecting it to the Competition. Sony Pictures Classics to release back home in theatres.