Eva Husson’s “Mothering Sunday” is the sort of film that demands to be seen more than once in order to be fully appreciated. It plays on the senses like a hypnotic fever dream, mixing memory and fantasy until they are indiscernible from one another. Odessa Young, the revelatory young star of Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” delivers a mesmerizing performance as Jane, a writer in England who recalls the erotic afternoon she shared with a man, Paul (Josh O’Connor, Emmy winner for “The Crown”), during the post-World War I era. The fact Paul is betrothed to marry a woman of his designated class lends a bittersweetness to his affair with Jane. Husson brilliantly explores an awakening that isn’t merely of a sexual nature, as Jane finds fulfillment in turning her emotional journey into art.
Beautifully adapted from Graham Swift’s novel by “Lady Macbeth” scribe Alice Birch and featuring an ensemble that includes Oscar winners Olivia Colman, Colin Firth and Glenda Jackson, “Mothering Sunday” has quickly emerged as one of the year’s most provocative and captivating pictures. Last week, I had the privilege of speaking separately with Husson and Young via Zoom about the film’s audacious structure and how its striking use of nudity has an essential political dimension. The following interview edits their individual answers into one cohesive conversation.
Eva, I greatly admired your previous film, “Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story,” which also portrayed sexual awakening and the evolution of a life in a way that felt so raw and relatable. What attracts you to exploring these themes in a way that is as much a turn on for the mind as anything else?
Eva Husson (EV): Well, thank you. I suppose when you’re in your twenties, you’re sort of a product of your time at that very moment, which you cease to be once you enter your thirties and forties. If you want to talk about a society that’s changing, this is a great prism in which to explore it. When I made “Bang Gang” in 2015, I felt that we were on the brink of a massive cultural and societal change. It was a paradigm shift. The movie ends before everything collapsed and over the past six years, everything has started to collapse. I feel that “Mothering Sunday” is similar in how it refers to the First World War as signifying the loss of meaning in everything. It’s the essence of postmodernism. How do you make sense of chaos and how do you stay human within it? How do you maintain emotion and humanity throughout this absolute tragedy? It proves to be impossible for Paul and the Nivens. It has destroyed their lives, but Jane doesn’t have that weight. She was orphaned at birth and came of age during postmodernism, which enabled her to take the money and run, thus becoming a full grown adult in her own time.
Odessa, you’ve starred in two of the best recent films about the mind of a writer—“Shirley” and now “Mothering Sunday.” How would you contrast these films in how they immerse viewers in the writer’s process?
Odessa Young (OD): It’s a pattern! [laughs] The similarity between them is that they’re both about how pain can translate into art, how people use the processes of writing, storytelling and narrativizing to process their own experiences with grief and loss. In Shirley Jackson’s case, she has an immense mental illness that disables her. In Jane’s case, she endures loss after loss after loss in her life, while trying to find out who she is throughout that loss. In contrast, Shirley finds solace in the darker fantasies and the underground parts of life, whereas I think Jane finds solace in perhaps a more hopeful or romanticized view of reality. Obviously, Josephine and Eva were each seeking to explore a different part of a writer’s life, which creates the different tones of the movies.
Watching the film “Mothering Sunday” before reading the book was a disorienting experience in how the line between memory and reverie tends to become blurred.
OD: Yeah, I agree. I adored the book because it was so abstract. It provides you with such immense detail about things, though you don’t really understand what the detail is within. You get the detail of a feeling, the detail of how a light shines on the wall, but you find yourself thinking, ‘Where is this wall? Why does this feeling occur? What is the feeling in reaction to?’ What Alice Birch pretty ingeniously did is she directly adapted that specificity of abstraction. Adaptation in and of itself is such an incredible art form that I think people rarely get right, and I believe that Alice has done the best version of what the film could’ve been in this style, in this abstraction.
In terms of how that effected me and how I internalized that, it definitely gave me a license to be a little less grounded, specifically in the early 1900s era of the movie, when you’re kind of interpreting it both as reality and as a memory that is constantly shifting while finding new legs and details. It made sense to me that in the scenes involving Jane at a young age, you should see an older Jane kind of stepping into the body of younger Jane to see through her eyes again. I don’t think that it’s entirely about someone in the moment going through these things. It’s very much about how we interpret our memories, and so on a performance level, that’s definitely where that took me.
EV: It was so interesting to explore the fragmentation of memory, while figuring out how to achieve that narratively. I worked a lot with my editor Emilie Orsini, because a lot of the film is about an impression of time passing and the impression of emotion. The structure of the film in the script was a little bit more fragmented and postmodern, in a way, and I realized that if the audience didn’t get involved in the right amount of emotional stages before they got to certain scenes, they would not care about them. So I had to reinstate the narrative a little bit more in certain stages to be able to get there. Otherwise, it would’ve been too intellectual, in a way. That was a fascinating and fun process to go through.
Why do you both—as actor and director—feel the film was enhanced by Alice Birch’s expansion of Jane’s character, allowing you to explore her in the ’20s, the ’40s and finally, the ’80s, where she is portrayed by the great Glenda Jackson?
OD: Because I think you get to see what it’s all for. You get to see the result of the pain. The book is beautiful in the sense that it is such a peaceful observation of grief and loss and pain. The movie has that piece in it as well, but you actually get to see where that pain goes and how it is transmuted into something that will effect one’s life forever. For me, the pleasure of being able to see Jane come into herself, actually become her own person and change the way that she deals with the world is a total gift. It’s interesting because I think the only times that you really get that beginning, middle and end of a life are in biopics, which are often so limited to historical facts or dates. What I like about this story is that it feels like it could be a biopic about a writer that we all know and love, but in reality, it’s just a love story with consequences. Yet the attention to detail regarding her life is still very present in the beginning, middle and end.
EV: I expanded a lot the relationship with Donald, played by Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, because I think it was very important to have that side of the mountain explored. Alice and I worked a lot together on organizing the time stamps so that you would be able to do the mental gymnastics. I realized that people had to be able to identify what time period they were in very quickly. Otherwise, the time jumps would be baffling, and they are already hard to follow sometimes, but I think that’s interesting. You’re constantly weaving in and out of time periods and emotions. Sometimes it’s just very fluid and you move forward, and other times, it’s very fragmented because you’re provided only with an impression of what happened.
How do you feel the portrayal of male vulnerability—both physical and otherwise—has evolved in recent years, and would you say female directors have played a crucial role in that?
EV: I’ve always been attracted to the works of male directors—Bergman, Almodóvar, Cassavetes—who are very in touch with that. For years, I thought they were filmmakers that I loved because they were gifted, but it hit me not too long ago that it’s because they showed a world that was the same one I was living in, unlike the many, many male gaze representations of masculinity onscreen. The male gaze obviously has an impact on how men see themselves as well. Then you have pioneer filmmakers like Jane Campion who created the amazing character played by Harvey Keitel in “The Piano.” He is a product of his own culture, which is about male toxicity, and yet he manages to access that emotional world through a woman, and that is also what Jane is for Josh. I do think that it’s so healthy to give these representations to men. It’s not just about female representation, it’s also about the representation of male toxicity, and that is equally essential.
Eight years ago, I interviewed filmmaker Joanna Coates about her movie “Amorous” (a.k.a. “Hide and Seek”) that featured Josh O’Connor in his third film as a young man involved in a polyamorous relationship. How did he and Odessa go about building a relationship of trust prior to the production?
OD: It was really quick. We didn’t have much time to actually get to know each other, but I also think the notion that you can get to know someone in a very forced way is kind of a myth. I’ve done it before where I’ve had hours and hours with someone that I’m meant to have all of this history and a backstory with, and it’s nice, but sometimes you just have to commit to the feeling of knowing someone. Ultimately, there’s only so far you can go in that chemistry building. As Odessa, my relationship with Josh O’Connor is very, very different from Jane’s relationship with Paul. I’m just really lucky that Josh is a brilliant actor, very game, really lovely, easy to get along with and committed to doing whatever he needed to do. There is an implicit understanding that, “Hey, this is gonna be weird—whatever!”, and that was really helpful. We both committed to making each other as comfortable as possible throughout the process. He made me very comfortable and I hope I did the same for him.
EV: I think he’s a rare bird in the sense that his face is a landscape. He makes me think of Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” which marks the first time that the face was really used as a landscape on film. With actors of that caliber, they are like music sheets. You watch the emotions flow over their faces, which is quite a spectacle when you’re a director. It’s a real privilege to have that kind of acting onscreen, and it allows you to go so much further. My job is basically to nudge and shift things a little bit here and there, mainly in the editing room, to do it justice, because there are ways you can completely destroy a performance. Look at what Christopher Nolan did to Marion Cotillard. There are times when the best actors, in a micro moment, can lose their concentration, and you have to protect them by picking the best of the best of what they gave. It’s your duty as a director to put together the absolute best moments, which will create something that is beyond the imagination.
Odessa is every bit as extraordinary as Josh. She blew my mind when I saw her act opposite Elisabeth Moss in “Shirley.” She barely speaks in the first part of the film, and yet you cannot take your eyes off her face. You are completely enthralled by her and that is just a gift. She has a long career ahead of her. She’s extremely professional, extremely generous and giving, and yet she’s an extremely intelligent actress, so she questions things, which personally, I really appreciate. I like to be pushed in my corner because it makes me think and have to justify things.
OD: I’ve realized lately where those arguments actually came from. I think that Jane, in her youth, feels a lot of limitations, whether she knows it or not, which she can then break out of as she grows up. Those arguments perhaps came from me internalizing those limitations. I’d show up onset and I’d be ready to pop. I’d say, “Here’s what it’s gotta be!”, and then Eva would be like, “Yeah, yeah, I know—I’ve had that written down here for weeks now. Don’t worry, you don’t have to convince me.” So it wasn’t arguments, it was impassioned conversations in the sense that I was arriving with this fight in me because I felt that’s what Jane might be feeling at the center of her core. Ultimately, the fight had nowhere to go because there was no fight to be had. But Eva dealt with me being grumpy really well. [laughs]
EV: The pandemic made everything much harder in terms of how to gather a team. We shot between two lockdowns, so it was not easy, and the emotions ran high.
OD: To have so much of your budget be taken up by COVID protocol that at times felt really strange and perhaps unnecessary—and, as we know now, extremely unnecessary—and to have it kind of chew into how much time and money and effort you actually get from your crew to make this movie is deeply, deeply frustrating. With all that in mind, Eva really didn’t let us see how much that was weighing on her. We all felt that frustration, but she was very invested in cultivating a peaceful environment onset, especially in the more intimate and tender scenes because she knew that was the blanket level of tone that we had to start with.
The overhead shot of the forest with a burst of flames in the lower right corner sticks in my mind as being symbolic of numerous themes, such as the repressed fire within the characters.
EV: It’s funny because that made me quite nervous. It was so economical in the way that we shot it. Everybody was like, “Are you sure you have enough footage?”, and I was convinced that it had to be anticlimactic in the sense that it should be a very simple moment and not some action-driven sequence. I didn’t need ten cameras with slow motion and different angles. I just needed a few very powerful shots, so that’s what I decided to go for. I wanted that shot to be as wide as possible, just to remind ourselves that we get engulfed by nature. We’re small specks on the map of the universe, and that’s what happens to a particular character in the film. He just gets swallowed.
For the speech that Paul makes by the window, I had the idea to just have the camera on his back the whole time, except for the last shot. Josh begged me to film the whole speech on his face anyway, and at the time, I was like, ‘Ugh, if I have the footage, I’m not going to have the guts to go for that idea.” But it was better to be safe rather than sorry, so in this case, I went for his suggestion, and then in the editing room, I realized what I had in mind for the scene just wasn’t working. Sometimes you have to be humble enough to admit that your idea was a radical one. It sounded great on paper but there was something either in the way the camera moved or didn’t move that failed to deliver what I had in mind.
I was very happy that I had coverage on this film, but for the accident sequence, our coverage consisted only of that shot. It was the crucial angle. There was just one kinetic shot that we didn’t get for technical reasons where I wanted to have a subjective view of the car crashing into a tree. I wanted to end the scene like that, but in the end, I didn’t even miss it.
The extraordinary section of Graham Swift’s book in which Jane walks naked through the house is portrayed so beautifully here. How did you both go about making that sequence resonate on an emotional and thematic level?
OD: Honestly, the way that Eva and I worked was she would just let me do stuff, and then she would, as she said, “kind of nudge it into position.” For the most part, I think we were both pretty much on the same page with that scene in what it was meant to feel like and how it was meant to be. As a performer, I’ve never shared one hundred percent of my intentions with directors because it would just get way too boring. I knew what the scene was meant to me and how I wanted an audience to interpret it, or even misinterpret it, which is a fun thing about it as well. There is actually a deep ambiguity to that scene. I’m sure a lot of people will interpret it as a kink. “Oh, she thinks she’s so naughty walking through this house with no clothes on!” I personally don’t think that’s what it’s about.
It’s about the fact that there is a person who is physically the barest she has ever been—emotionally the most adorned she perhaps has ever been—walking through a place that she has never, ever been allowed to walk through in her entire life. To me, it feels like Jezebel putting on all of her makeup to go to her death. It feels ceremonious. I don’t know if that translates, but that’s how I went about it. I also think it goes back to that idea of, ‘Is Jane just remembering this? Did it really happen? Is this just a fantasy? Is this what she wishes she could’ve done or is she actually remembering a time where she walked naked through the house of her employer’s friends?’ There is an ambiguity to that as well, so it operates on many levels to me. It’s a very fascinating centerpiece of the movie.
EV: That’s the scene that really excited me to make the film, because I thought it was taking such an important political stance. I absolutely adore the fact that, on the surface, it seems to be simply showing a naked girl walking in a house. But it’s so powerful in the sense that what you actually see is a woman who is lower class doing things that she normally wouldn’t be allowed to do with such simplicity. Why is she thought to be less than the people who have acquired money and power through mere birthright, which has no ethical meaning at all? Her sheer presence in front of the wall of books was political for me. When I read that scene, it reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s comments in A Room of One’s Own where she wanders through the aisles of the library and she muses upon the fact that there’s hardly a name by a female writer on the shelf.
I felt this scene was the cinematic version of that discourse where suddenly, just by her own presence, she belongs there and is an embodiment of the future of creativity, which is mind-blowing in itself. It’s such a powerful visual in a patriarchal society where for millennia, it was not even thinkable that she would be able to stand there at all, and all of a sudden, her presence is entirely natural. By not making this about the male gaze, which would have required her to be doing something sensual or sexy, it allows the scene to have an entirely different focus. It’s about nudity as a political statement, not nudity as sexuality in that moment, which reminds us of how political nudity inherently is.
“Mothering Sunday,” opens Friday, March 25th, in New York and Los Angeles, and will expand to theaters nationwide in the following weeks.