It is the eve of Mother’s Sunday, when servants in large houses have a day off to visit their mothers. Be glad you don’t have parents, patrician Mrs. Niven orders her maid, Jane, as she removes the jewels from her hands. Jane – played by Australian actress Odessa Young – was left as a baby on the steps of an orphanage. She has no idea who her parents were. To have been “so completely bereaved” at the very beginning of life, her mistress continues, means that the loss – the real loss – is over. She can go on with her life. “It’s a gift.”

Is it true? Film by French director Eva Husson – based on the award-winning 2016 novel by Graham Swift, and adapted by normal people‘s Alice Birch – set in 1925, when Jane was 24, but flashes forward to show us Jane’s life in early middle age and as an old woman (played by Glenda Jackson), now a successful writer recalling her sultry youth. Jane has, in fact, suffered a terrible loss. Husson compares this trajectory through the ages to watching a biopic, albeit of someone imaginary.

“Life: it’s a constant quest and a constant exploration,” she says. “When you have the privilege of following a character into old age, it kind of reflects that. To have the sass that Glenda Jackson brings to [the old Jane] but then, at the same time, the beauty of it and the feeling that life is hard. We have the privilege of not being pebbles.

At least Jane’s grief is part of normal life. There must be a different measure of the loss that reconfigured the broken families emerging from the First World War. The Nivens and their close friends the Sheringhams each lost two boys: only Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), who was younger than his brothers. and their friends, stay. The two clans still meet for picnics, but it’s a sadly childless affair. Paul still remembers Mrs. Niven (Olivia Colman, giving a brief but telling performance) jumping into the river and challenging the boys to races she would invariably win. Her clothes tell us the kind of person she was when she bought them; all colorful embroideries, ethnic prints and patterns. Now she can barely speak. She is an envelope of grief.

It is therefore up to Paul to meet everyone’s expectations: to be a lawyer like his father, to inherit the estate and to marry the bereaved fiancée left by one of his brothers. He is surrounded by survivor’s guilt. This theme of the man prisoner of social constraints particularly interests Husson.

Josh O’Connor in Mothering Sunday: “We need to see men understand their place in the world and look back to where it came from.”Credit:Broadcast Movies

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“I belong to a generation of women who have been shaped by the male gaze,” she says. “Of course it’s about women, but it’s also a toxic view of men as strong, reliable, infallible, successful – that’s not achievable.” Filmmakers like her – she also did daughters of the sun, shown in pre-pandemic Australia, about an army of Kurdish women — might be able to offer men “a little side door” to something more free, she thinks. “We can’t just represent women and leave men on the sidelines.”

Josh O’Connor, whose memorable roles have included a gay shepherd locked in God’s country and Prince Charles in The crown, laughs at the thought that he has cornered the market of emotionally suppressed men. “I seem to have played a lot of men dealing with masculinity and the power and struggle that brings,” he says. “Someone told me recently that the similarities between Prince Charles and Johnny Saxby in God’s country were amazing, and I was like ‘umm, seriously?’ But it was such a compelling bond!