“Mothering Sunday,” director Eva Husson’s film of Graham Swift’s novel, begins with the words, “Once upon a time,” which are repeated by the heroine Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young, “Shirley”) as we see her open face in close-up.
She eventually begins furiously scrubbing something with a cloth, which lets us know that she is a servant, and a title lets us know that it is supposed to be Mother’s Day in England in 1924. But not everything is as it seems here.
The tone of “Mothering Sunday” is faintly absurd at first in a way that feels deliberate. There are static and pretty shots of grand interiors by cinematographer Jamie Ramsay (“Moffie”) and some extremely flattering lighting on Young and Josh O’Connor (“The Crown”), who plays Jane’s lover Paul Sheringham; there is one shot of them together near some white roses that is particularly swoon-worthy because of the way the light is molding their features and nearly beatifying them.
The first hour or so of “Mothering Sunday” can be very enjoyable because Husson (“Girls of the Sun”) does not take what little narrative there is too seriously and instead dedicates herself to making O’Connor into the most attractive possible love object for her camera. She even breaks his features down into segments, first showing us only his red lips as he speaks to Jane, and then a shot of him nude from behind as Jane basks in the afterglow of their lovemaking. Husson even has a phallic shaft of light covering Jane’s face here, an erotic visual idea that goes all the way back to at least Hedy Lamarr in “Ecstasy,” made nearly a hundred years ago.
“Mothering Sunday” is the first feature film that 1970s British prestige star Glenda Jackson has made in more than 30 years, but we see only two silent shots of her sitting at a desk and reflecting until the very end of the picture. These shots are the initial inkling that what we are seeing of Jane and Paul might actually be scenes being written down by both Jackson’s Jane and another younger Jane (also played by Young), and if that sounds confusing, that’s because it is.
“Mothering Sunday” gets by for a while because Husson is so greedy for purely hedonistic images in terms of décor but mainly in the way she shoots O’Connor; when we first see a full close-up of him here, he looks very nervous and awkward until his face opens up into an appealingly bashful smile. Husson presents so many lingering nude shots of O’Connor that it almost gets to be too much of a good thing, but as Mae West once said, too much of a good thing can be wonderful.
It can be difficult to follow what O’Connor and Young are murmuring to each other during their rhapsodic love scenes, but that’s fine as long as Husson is concentrating on sheer visual pleasure; where things start to go wrong is when we are made to think about what we are seeing. Colin Firth and Olivia Colman play a wealthy and aggrieved couple who are employers to Young’s Jane, and there are actors here in small parts who seem to have been hired for their visual resemblance to both O’Connor and Colman, but this sort of literary game-playing with characters is very difficult to make clear for a movie.
“Mothering Sunday” collapses in its second half, and we are finally led to wonder just how good a writer Jane Fairchild is supposed to be. Based on all the nude images of O’Connor here, it would seem that Husson is trying to suggest that Jane Fairchild is a self-indulgent author who gets lost imagining her leading male character undressed over and over again.
Yet when Jackson reappears at the end of the film, her older version of Jane Fairchild has won some kind of significant award, maybe even the Nobel Prize. When Jackson’s Jane opens her door for reporters, she says, “I’ve won all the prizes, every single one,” but this seems very unlikely given what we have perceived about her work. The most notable thing here is that Jackson’s legendary nervous tension and bite as a performer has given way to a kind of purified calm. It is that new calm from Jackson plus all the worthy pin-up shots of O’Connor that will be remembered about “Mothering Sunday” when all its other problems have been forgotten.
“Mothering Sunday” opens in US theaters March 25.