There was one particular scene in “Mothering Sunday,” adapted from Graham Swift’s 2016 novel by screenwriter Alice Birch, that convinced director Eva Husson she should make the film. After a date with her secret lover, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), a housekeeper from a nearby mansion, finds herself alone, wandering the empty rooms of Paul’s house. . It’s a sunny Mother’s Day and everyone is out, waiting for Paul to join them, while Jane lingers. At one point, she finds herself in the sprawling library of the English mansion, naked, running her fingers over the books.
“I was that girl,” says Husson, speaking on Zoom from Paris. “I found myself in places I wasn’t meant to be, walking around naked and really feeling the power of my naked body. Just being there. I knew it. I knew it wasn’t going to be scary or sordid And I knew it wasn’t something you often see on screen: a naked woman walking through books, without it being sexual. And it wasn’t sexual; it was political. I was like, ‘I have to do this.’ It was the scene that made me want to make the film.
For Young, who was cast remotely from Australia before the pandemic, Jane’s wordless scenes in the house were most daunting, but also what the actress calls the “centerpiece of the film.” She recalls a MasterClass Helen Mirren once did, which sums up the challenge the role presented.
“The first thing [Helen Mirren] just walks from the backstage on the stage to the chair,” Young says, speaking separately from New York. “She sits down and says, ‘I just did the hardest thing you can do as an actor.’ Which is walking with intention. The idea of just walking as a person, with nothing but your body to rely on, is extremely difficult. We shot this footage for so many days – I think we we toured for a whole week. I went naked for a whole week. And there were so many days where I thought I was the worst actor in the world. It really calls into question the work you’ve done I didn’t want to get in there and just fly it because there’s a nuance to every moment in that library and in that house, and that was perhaps the biggest challenge the role posed.
“Mothering Sunday” is, in itself, nuanced. Set across multiple timelines, with Jane as a maid in 1924 surrounding the film’s pivotal events and then later in her life, the story is delicate and quiet, with a tone paralleling Birch’s work as a writer on Hulu’s “Normal People.” The film’s success hinges on the relationship between Paul and Jane, who are unequal in terms of class status and availability (Paul is engaged to the daughter of his parents’ friends). The connection the characters share is complex and fueled by the mood of the times.
“We talked a lot about our characters and the relationship between them,” O’Connor recalled. “Although I suppose, looking back on it, what’s so strange about this relationship between Jane and Paul is that in many ways it wasn’t an emotionally deep relationship. Or it didn’t feel right to us. There was obviously love there, but I think there was so much trauma and tragedy from Paul – and Jane being an orphan – that there was a distance. time, I don’t know if people were able to express those feelings. We live in a time where we’re trying to get more involved with our own mental health and we have more language available to explain our feelings. I don’t know if we then necessarily had that, and there’s a stiff upper lip British attitude. There was a lot of character work, but a lot of it was personal and private, and then we worked those scenes together.
Audiences see little of Paul and Jane together, even though their relationship shapes the events of the narrative, both in 1924 and later when Jane, now a writer, is in a relationship with Donald (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). In fact, an early scene captures Paul and Jane’s story at a glance, depicting their antics and its aftermath. The portrayal of sex is candid and realistic and features the shameless nudity of both actors. It’s especially impressive when you realize that O’Connor and Young didn’t meet until about a week before filming (he took her on a field trip to London Zoo, which O’Connor says was a questionable choice).
“I believe that nudity is a beautiful interface for intimacy,” says Husson. “Nudity isn’t necessarily about sex, which is why I liked the scenes where they talk naked so much. They spend a lot more time naked talking than having sex. There could be one minute of sex in the film, overall, and everything else is intimacy around sex. We need to see that represented on screen. Pornography can’t be the only way to have people represented. in sexual situations because otherwise it’s going to be thought that extreme behavior is the norm. And it’s not. A lot of times it’s not passionate – it’s just naked people talking, and that’s very good.
Still, filming the sequence caused some anxiety for O’Connor, who credits Husson and Young with helping him feel comfortable. Every moment of the sex scene was choreographed by Husson, who previously explored on-screen sex with his 2015 film “Bang Gang.” It was also filmed with as few people in the room as possible.
“Nobody wants to be naked, ever, do they?” O’Connor laughs. “What I mean by that is that we’re all completely embarrassed. But I don’t think I would ever do it if I felt it was free. And I think there must be a reason. If you’re ever lucky enough to read — or have read — Graham Swift’s novel, much of that connection is unspoken. Partly because they are unable to engage in language and be emotional in that sense, nudity provides an enormous sense of vulnerability. We work in an art form that has to do with the image, and that tells the story perfectly.
“The bubble was very safe,” adds Young, referencing both COVID-19 and the reality of the scene. “It was also part of the emotional safety, that you can take it out of your mind for a second that hopefully a lot of people will see this and see what you’re doing at the time. Which is really disheartening You can take that away from that because right now you’re just in a room with a few people that you’ve worked closely with for the past few weeks and, also, ultimately, that’s what we signed up.
Although “Mothering Sunday” is set in historical periods, Husson did not approach the film as a traditional British period piece. The director, who is French, wanted each scene to be bright and infused with sunshine – something that was tricky with the English weather when filming in autumn 2020. She sees a correlation between now and the 1920s, c That’s why the film has such a contemporary resonance.
“There was incredible freedom [in the 1920s]Husson says. “I’m kind of envious that they had this tiny little window in the story where they could experiment with things without having to label everything. Sexuality was extremely fluid. You didn’t have to define yourself as straight or gay or queer or whatever – you could just jump in and experiment, if you were lucky enough to be in an artistic environment, of course. I think that’s the motivation behind Jane’s freedom. She’s from that generation where the worst happened, so it’s like a blank canvas.
O’Connor adds that the goal was “to get something as close to the truth [as possible] or something that feels as authentic as possible” while considering the historical context, and Young feels it was ultimately best to leave the research behind and simply embody the characters.
“There really is no difference in the human soul, no matter the decade,” she says. “The story itself, if we’re going to go through the media representations, I think the love story of Jane and Paul and then the love story of Donald and Jane are two romances ahead of their time . Aside from the accent, I think there was no real internal difference in how it all felt. The story is quite timeless.