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Emotional Laborer

Robert Viglasky/Sony Pictures Classics

Mothering Sunday (2021)

Based on Graham Swift’s 2016 novel, “Mothering Sunday” is another absolutely pointless reminiscence about a bygone era of wars, manners and servitude, when well-bred society people (Olivia Colman! Colin Firth!) indeed suffered real loss and tragedy – and not the elective and entirely preventable kind such as Lehman Brothers or Covid-19 – yet remained undeterred to meet for picnics and dinners just to trade barbs, throw hissy fits and be awful.

But this taking place nearly a decade before Black Lives Matter means white people get to be indentured servants, too. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), an orphan, works as a maid for the Nivens (Ms. Colman and Mr. Firth). She and Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor of “The Crown”) have been rendezvousing in secret, despite his impending nuptials with Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy). Given the afternoon off while the Nivenses, Sheringhams and Hobdays gather for a picnic, Jane bikes over to the Sheringham home to meet Paul.

Here, director Eva Husson proceeds to prove the female gaze can be just as shallow as the male. After a thoroughly tepid sex scene, we’re treated to off-putting sights of unremarkable nudity and remnants of bodily fluid complete with shockingly improper talks of contraceptives and speculations of Jane being the unplanned child of a maid. Post-coitus, Paul rushes to make an appearance at the luncheon, leaving Jane to freely roam about the house, explore its massive library and help herself to a slice of pie left on the kitchen table. If there’s any semblance of porn, it’s the unattainable wealth and privilege in which Jane briefly gets to luxuriate.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure the romance is doomed, but the film flashes forward to when Jane, a writer now, is shacking up with a black man, Donald (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). He’s a philosopher and seemingly decent bloke, but screenwriter Alice Birch never affords him the same kind of nuance and biographical detail that she does Paul. In fact, Jane’s post-service life as a bookseller and, subsequently, a novelist seems entirely like a blur, because she’s mining her affair with Paul for creative fodder. We never get a sense of how she finally discovers her sense of self or writing voice – a near-cliché low-hanging-fruit conclusion. All we’re left with is a loveless affair with an unsexy and romantically unavailable man that most of us would soon forget.


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