Colin Firth, Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Olivia Colman. Photos: Sony Pictures Classics

By Mary Ellen Holden

Delicate, sensual, empowering, and masterful, Mothering Sunday, adapted from the 2016 novella by Graham Swift, is the story of loss, survival, grief, guilt, and deception. Set in the wake of World War 1, the film, in a nonlinear style, follows the life of Jane Fairchild – (played by Odessa Young) as she navigates the passion and peril inherent in intimacy and the unexpected turns of life.

While billed as a British romantic drama, Mothering Sunday is also a movie about a female creator orchestrating her life story against the odds of her socio-economic status, class, and education. The film had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and subsequently debuted in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on March 25, 2022, alongside a virtual See Jane Influencer Screening made possible by Sony Pictures Classics. This exclusive screening featured an informative Q&A hosted by Madeline Di Nonno, President and CEO of the Institute, the film’s director, Eva Husson, and star Odessa Young. The visually arresting movie is punctuated by big emotions and an impressive musical score. The music amplifies Jane’s transformation from an observer of life to an inspired writer with the power to “pen” new beginnings.

Excerpts from the See Jane Influencer Screening Q&A follow:

Madeline Di Nonno: There are so many ways to tell a story. As a director, how did you thread the story together?

Eva Husson: It’s not easy. It was a seven-month process during the pandemic, with multiple reassessments. We are pretty good at making connections, like a dance. The story was postmodern at the very beginning because it was much more fragmented. Our challenge was to infuse the emotional beats necessary to get the actors and audience engaged. We needed to give enough for Jane’s tragedies to be emotionally charged while fragmenting the narrative to ensure it came across as a memory.

Every time we moved one thing in the edit, even if it was 30 seconds, we had to watch the whole film again. So, I watched it 200 times!

Madeline: You were a brilliant choice for the lead – what was your initial impression of the material – what spoke to you?

Odessa Young: This is a simple answer. I thought it was an outstanding screenplay; it was well-written. I felt it; I adored the characters immediately. It was one of those rare occurrences when you know on the first read that there was an instant access point into the pain, grief, and loss.

I could go into all the reasons I think it is so impactful, but that speaks for itself. I was familiar with Eva’s work as I’d seen her two films and felt that they were beautiful, tender, and sensitive. I immediately paired with her style and this kind of story, so it was a no-brainer.

Madeline: Eva, please tell us about Odessa.

Eva: I had been searching for Jane for a bit, and I was beginning to get nervous. I realized that the patriarchal male gaze often still defines young actresses. They tend to be soft, pretty, and accessible. I wanted Jane to have more texture and scope, and I wanted her to project strength and vulnerability simultaneously. The two are not antithetical; it’s OK to be a woman who is highly driven, intelligent, and owning her own emotions. I can relate to that a bit, and it’s how the character was written.

I was blown away when I saw her in Shirley, holding her own with Elizabeth Moss. Very few actresses have this extraordinary range and the fire to go head-to-head with Elizabeth Moss.

Madeline: There are many ways to address pain, grief, and loss. Throughout the film, the characters are emotionally reserved, yet there are significant moments of outbursts, like when the Olivia Colman character finally explodes, which was juxtaposed against the quiet moments. Can you talk about that from a direction standpoint?

Eva: It’s funny because I realized that I have faith in actors because 99% of the directing decisions are made in casting. I can be like the doula that helps in giving birth by giving it a nudge.

I trust the actor’s process, and I try to push them and, yes, we talk, but I don’t tend to over-analyze. I think it breaks them. It’s a matter of trying to see what the actor/actress needs from me or not. So, I’m a very reactive director.

Odessa: It’s weird because I believe that everything you just said is true. Our dynamic on set was unique. I came to you with ideas, and I said I’m not budging, and you would have already written down the same thought, so there wasn’t much to talk about. Our ideas were in sync about what the story meant, what was needed, how deep Jane needed to go.

Eva: That’s what I’m talking about – directing is 99% casting! It was the same with Josh and Colin. That’s the part of the job that I love for its magical power. It’s like falling in love with somebody you know, and you don’t quite know why, but you’re on the same page and working your way through the moment. It’s truly magical!

Madeline: What was it like for you to age and play the same character over decades? There’s the physical and the emotional. How did you train yourself for that?

Odessa: I wish that I had a more exciting answer. I didn’t. I was given a script that did the work for me. Alice Birch had taken such care to differentiate younger Jane and older Jane. For example, young Jane doesn’t speak a lot; she’s mainly walking and looking at things which I love because it gives you such an insight into her and her perspective. She is also a bit of a cipher, and that’s all very alluring. Still, I think what’s so exciting about older Jane or even Jane in her 20s when she meets Donald is that she gets to hold herself higher, self-actualize, own herself, and have an opinion. I think that changes your voice, your body, and how you approach scenes.

I didn’t train for it because the rest fell into place as soon as I understood the foundational difference in her confidence.

Eva: I beg to differ about one thing, that makes a substantial difference between the way you play Jane 20 something and Jane 40 something and it’s the gaze where you know she was brought up as an orphan to be a maid. Young Jane didn’t look into people’s eyes. It’s a powerful social signifier, and when she’s older, she gets rid of that social signifier. She freed herself from this subordination relationship, and she has a compelling stare, like in a staring contest!

It’s even more powerful because you see how she looks at people and engages with all those little things – the make-up, the hairdos, the impressionistic color palate, the writing, etc.

Madeline: In addition to your fabulous cast, I would love for you to talk about another character in the movie: the music. It was particularly powerful on what I am calling Freedom Day as the music informs the scene’s drama.

Eva: I’m glad you brought this up because it’s a real credit to my longtime collaborator Morgan Kibby. We met when she was 17 as an actress, and then Morgan transitioned to composing. We’ve worked together for 20 years. If we hadn’t had that intimate knowledge of each other, I don’t think the music would have been so organic to the film. We both wanted the music to be a character, holding things together, which was challenging. Especially with a nonlinear narrative, temp music didn’t work. We ultimately only had three weeks to create the score, working very long days with her on the phone in LA and me in London. It’s quite moving when you have that comfort and trust in your collaborator; I just knew that I’d get on track and finish the journey together, and that’s exactly what happened.

Madeline: Odessa, I’d like your thoughts on building trust and chemistry with your co-star, Josh, during the pandemic, as these were such critical, intimate scenes.

Odessa: We sent a few messages to each other before we arrived in London, and then we were in the rehearsal room together. I think we were technically meant to be. Josh is a professional, a brilliant actor, and a wonderful person. That’s what I trust – the consummate professional and a kind heart. There’s not much else to question.

We both knew what we needed to deliver. We knew that we had to have chemistry and commit to it as we wouldn’t get any more time. So, we walked and looked at each other and knew this was what it needed to be. I was thankful that he was game, and I was game. We were up for the challenge and on the same page.

Madeline: Eva, any final words?

Eva: I had a blast with the actors; it was just one of those exceptional experiences. The entire cast was incredible and professional – despite a few cold sweats at night, I knew we could pull it off.

Sope Dirisu, Eva Husson and Odessa Young on set. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics