Mothering Sunday – Exploring the fragility and power of sex, love and the impact it has on a creative female artist

“The Mothering Sunday script fell on my lap like a little spark of pure energy visiting me from a galaxy, far, far away,” says director Eva Husson, who read Alice Birch’ screenplay in one day, in fragments of 5 or 10 minutes. “I always made sure I went back to it because I realised I had to. I finished the script in tears.”

Producing partners Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley of Number 9 Films, longtime admirers of the Booker Prize-winning author, were sent a galley copy of the Graham Swift’s novella, Mothering Sunday, shortly before it was published in 2016.

They loved it instantly. The filmmakers were then coming off the success of the achingly romantic Carol and had a long history of developing original stories and literary adaptations of just that kind of thoughtful, emotional material.

“We thought it was a really interesting piece of work,” says Karlsen of the book. “We met Graham a couple of times and it all just fell into place.”

Although other producers were interested, Karlsen and Woolley – who had worked with Swift previously on a 1993 adaptation of his novel Waterland – won the day, alongside Film4 who had optioned the book.

“I’ve always loved Graham’s work,” says Woolley. “He’s got incredible skill. His work is very funny, at the same time as being subtle and moving. This was just something we thought was quite original. What really appealed to us was the fact that Jane was such a well-drawn character. It was a retelling of a period that is very familiar, up to the 1980s. In one character it takes you through this one day, Mothering Sunday, and the events that really did shape her life told from her perspective.”

On a warm spring day in 1924, house maid and foundling Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) finds herself alone on Mother’s Day. Her employers, Mr and Mrs Niven (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), are out and she has the rare chance to spend quality time with her secret lover, Paul (Josh O’Connor), the boy from the manor house nearby who is Jane’s long-term love despite the fact that he’s engaged to be married to another woman, a childhood friend and daughter of his parents’friends. But events that neither can foresee will change the course of Jane’s life forever.

The novella is a tricky story of memory

While the older Jane casts her mind back to the day that shaped her, her memory sometimes branches off in unexpected directions, with other stops along the long thread of her life. So this is no simple upstairs-downstairs drama about romance across the class divide. It required a subtle and rounded approach to encompass Jane’s later life as an author and the woman she becomes.

That’s why the producers brought in playwright and screenwriter Alice Birch to adapt the script. Then, fresh off the success of her first film, Lady Macbeth, Birch has since gone on to acclaim for her adaptation of Normal People and her work on season two of TV hit “Succession”.

Birch began drafting the script, almost instantly deciding upon a time-fractured structure that echoes but does not replicate the book.

“It felt very clear to me that it couldn’t be an entirely linear structure; that didn’t feel like my experience while reading it. I felt interested in the different ways that we move through time with an image or a word, what triggers a memory. That was relatively instinctive. It was so incredibly emotional, and the writing was just so elegant. She [Jane] was such an interesting character and it felt so cinematic when I was reading it. I thought, yeah, I know what this is about, and I know where it’s going to go. It’s sort of huge, as well as relatively short, so rich. There’s a heartbeat, but it contains an entire life.”

Alice Birch

After Birch figured out the script there came the job of finding a director. Karlsen had met Eva Husson at the Toronto Film Festival, and the pair had bonded instantly.

Eva Husson 

“I’d seen Eva’s film Bang Gang and I just thought she had a boldness that we really needed in this script to match Alice’s boldness,” says Karlsen. “She has a real feeling for the nuance, the quiet moments and things that aren’t being said. She’s very sensitive to the emotional moment and physicality of the piece. She is able to hone in on the emotional necessity of a scene, and the choices she makes about the framing and the delivery feel very astute to me.”

“We thought, there’s somebody with a political conscience, who at the same time is not frightened of being real,” agrees Woolley. “She seemed to have a fantastic combination.”Sure enough, Husson felt an instant connection to the material when she read Birch’s script.

“The TV show I was prepping had a lot of action,” says Husson of her first look at the piece. “And there comes this delicate, literary script and I thought, oh, this is heaven. This is gold. It all comes down to the raw emotions, this delicate line of vulnerability and intimacy between people. I’m very keen on that. How do you survive life? It’s is rough and throws countless tragic events at you, so how do you keep creating, how do you keep laughing and loving, despite everything?”

Mothering Sunday seemed to have, somehow, found its way to me, and there it was, this wonderful screenplay, speaking to me, playing a frequency that opened me up like only the most honest works of art do.”

“I have never felt so at home with another writer’s script, and suddenly there it was, seeming to whisper in my ear,” says Husson.

“It was a culmination of everything that I am passionate about in life: writing, sex, and pure cinema. The opportunity to bring to the big screen the story of a ‘Doris Lessing-esque’ writer. To explore the fragility and power of sex, love and the impact it has on a creative female artist. To do that in some sort of holy triumvirate composed of Alice Birch’s impeccable writing, Elizabeth Karlsen’s effortless charisma, and myself, is nothing short of an extraordinary privilege. What I found truly exciting is that the movie already existed and lived on the page,” says Husson.

Husson has been a nomad most of her adult life, living between France, the States, the UK, Spain and Puerto Rico. She’s trilingual and speaks French, Spanish and English. She went to drama school, then minored in philosophy, and majored in English literature at the Sorbonne University, where she got a Masters in English Literature (summa cum laude) and a BA in Spanish Literature. She then went on to pursue an MFA in Directing at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In 2015 she made her feature film Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story), in 2018, Eva was nominated for the Palme d’Or for her second feature film Girls of the Sun which premiered in Cannes, Main Competition. In 2021, Husson is back in Cannes again with her English debut, Mothering Sunday, selected in the new section Premiere.

From page to screen

With the director and script in place, it was time to cast the film. A few names immediately came to mind.

Josh O’Connor was an early favourite for the role of Paul, thanks to his barnstorming performance in God’s Own Country. He had a pre-pandemic meeting with Husson that convinced both that they wanted to work together.

Josh O’Connor

“I read the script very quickly, which is a good sign,” says O’Connor. “I’m a great admirer of Alice’s writing. Then I met with Eva about a week later and I was very clear that I wanted to do it. That was it! These are the roles that interest me, the big emotions and the big questions of life.”

But Husson couldn’t absolutely confirm O’Connor’s casting until she found her Jane, to be sure that the two would have the necessary chemistry. That took a little longer. Then she saw Odessa Young in Shirley, whose spark was instantly right for the role.

Odessa Young

“I read the script and it was astounding,” says Young. “I recognised from the get-go that she had an immense emotional stake in the story. You know, it’s a movie about a female creator creating the things that she does against the odds of her class and her education levels. I think that any creator feels like it is a struggle to create, in a world that is not necessarily set up to aid our desires and especially female creators. That’s why I connected very, very powerfully to the story. When everybody’s on the same page it always feels electric.”

“With casting, we were very lucky,” says Husson. “We got Odessa and Josh, and from there on, everyone seemed to just love the script and said yes. Colin Firth, yes! Olivia Colman, oh yay! It brings such gravitas and stature to each character, they instilled the whole story with just another layer.”

The script came to Colin Firth, who plays Jane’s employer Mr Niven, who he instantly connected with the themes.

Colin Firth

“I felt it was a very compassionate piece, an extremely thoughtful and honest observation,” he says. “The focus is on [Jane], and we see the emergence of an incredibly intense, extraordinarily intelligent person, and the budding of her imagination. I loved the way the dialogue is written, because it’s not obvious. It’s broken up. I think Alice Birch has very successfully tried to identify thought patterns, the way people speak when communication is not easy, for cultural or emotional reasons. It’s quite exhilarating as an actor to be presented with speech patterns that are very truthful in that respect. It doesn’t make it necessarily easy to land it, or easy to learn, because it doesn’t have the obvious logic of perfect syntax. You have to go deeper. So in some ways that is a challenge. But if you solve it, it pays huge rewards in terms of finding something substantial.”

Olivia Colman, fresh from her role as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, was similarly moved by the material and signed on as Mrs Niven. Her character has one of the heaviest emotional burdens in the entire story.

Olivia Colman and Odessa Young.

“It’s always the script for me,” she says. “It’s a beautifully written piece.” “Mrs Niven lost both her sons [in the War], and she’s just a sort of broken woman. She was very cool, a woman of money in that period who could have rowed a boat or flown a plane, very sporty. She was an exciting woman and they had a lovely life. But since losing her sons she says nothing, there’s no point to life for her. She’s just having a horrible time.”

For Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, the star of last year’s hits His House and TV’s Gangs Of London, who plays Donald, it was a real relief to have something to read over the lockdown period.

“I was really surprised when I read the novella,” says Dìrísù. “I was like, wow, Alice has created a whole life out of a couple of sentences. I think that just speaks to her incredible imagination and incredible writing.”

The Shoot

Compared to other productions, Mothering Sunday had several factors working in its favour for shooting during a pandemic. First of all, it was nearly ready to go before the UK’s first lockdown and was able to put the final pieces in place during that hiatus, so that the team could leap into action once the restrictions were lifted. Secondly, it’s a small, contained story without large crowd scenes or complicated action that might require vast numbers of crew members. The story is set in a small number of locations, most of the country houses with limited public access, which also helped.

The sun cooperated at first but soon the weather turned damp and drizzly – which posed a challenge for South African director of photography Jamie Ramsay – best known for his work on the BAFTA-nominated Moffie – as he strived to make every day of this shoot match the sun-drenched, blessed Sunday described in both book and script.

“70% of the movie takes place over one spring day, which in autumn in the UK, for a South African cinematographer, is quite a challenge,” says Ramsay. “Obviously in South Africa, the light is super hard and sunny. Here it’s softer. So we’re going from establishing really sunny moments to trying to make rain look like it’s an attractive day. Then obviously you have creative challenges, trying to subtly separate the time periods so that you avoid the tropes of flashbacks. We’ve used various lenses to help separate moments, and we’ve also treated the lenses in certain ways. You just try to subtly implant visual details that will subconsciously separate your time periods.”