If there’s anything especially noteworthy about the post-WWI romance Mothering Sunday, it’s the sex. By most metrics, the film is exactly what you’d expect from a BFI-funded costume drama in which a deflated Colin Firth & Olivia Colman mope around a cold, tidy estate in mourning of their young sons, lost to the horrors of war. At the same time, it’s unusually fixated on the sexual awakening of that grieving couple’s young maid, often in raunchy detail. Mothering Sunday features way more onscreen semen & peen than you’ll see in other stately costume dramas of its ilk (provided by The Crown‘s Josh O’Connor, in case that matters), to the point where there are multiple(!!) scenes depicting cum stains on bedsheets. It’s not overflowing with fun, adventurous sex scenes or anything; it’s not Season 1 Bridgerton. Instead, it lingers on one unrushed, afternoon-lit sexual encounter that reverberates loudly through the rest of the maid’s life, as told in a loose, disorienting mix of flashbacks, flashforwards, and looping images.
Shirley’s Odessa Young stars as the maid in question, a sheltered service worker who’s given a full sex-ed crash course by a family friend (O’Connor) of her employers (Firth & Colman). In the lull between World Wars, the English village where she works is suffering one of the rare scenarios in history where dick is in short supply, which is why it’s especially risky that she crosses class lines to steal the heart of the only eligible bachelor around. The story is mostly anchored to their final tryst, an especially sweaty, intimate afternoon avoiding the usual village conversation about how many young men are dead & missing from their lives. Before that afternoon, the maid is a naive child who knows little of the world inside her body or out. Long after, she’s a self-assured literary genius who’s destined to suffer way more heartache than losing her first love. It’s during that final afternoon together when she finds a way to truly be herself for the first time, especially in moments when she’s left alone without her wealthier, more experienced lover looming over her.
The loopy, dreamy editing style is a double-edged sword. It’s disorienting to the point where I couldn’t get a handle on the whos, whats, and whens of a very simple story for way too long, but the film would be a forgettable, standard-issue post-WWI romance without it. As is, it gives the story a languid kind of sensuality that I appreciated, and frees it up from having to adapt every moment of the source material novel. This is more a film of sensory details than one of linear storytelling. It lingers & distracts, intercutting memories and losing time as if it were reminiscing through post-sex pillow talk instead of dictating a memoir. Its attention to prurient, raunchy detail fits snugly in that editorial headspace, so much so that it’s easy to forget it’s a tragedy – several times over. I’m honestly not sure it all comes together as anything solid or commendable, but it pairs its climax with a true stunner of a musical piece that almost convinced me it was nearing genius (or, at least something more substantial than most period romances in the same vein):