A very English saga: BRIAN VINER reviews Mothering Sunday

A very English saga of lust and loss: BRIAN VINER reviews Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday (15, 104 min) 

Verdict: Gorgeously, ineffably English

Rating:

Cry Macho (12, 104 min)

Verdict: A Mexican-American turkey  

Rating:

Watching Mothering Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it felt like a genuine privilege to be English.

I was sitting next to a German critic who, as we filed out at the end, told me she had been thoroughly bored throughout. There may even have been a fierce expletive.

Well, I adored it. But it is so ineffably English, a kind of cinematic version of a ploughman’s lunch at a Chilterns pub, that it is, indeed, hard to imagine anyone not from Britain truly grasping all its nuances.

An adaptation of Graham Swift’s 2016 novel, Eva Husson’s film unfolds, mostly, on an unseasonally warm Mother’s Day in 1924. Jane Fairchild, charmingly played by the Australian actress Odessa Young, is a maid at the handsome Home Counties home of the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), over whom the long shadow of the Great War still falls. They, like their good friends the Sheringhams, lost sons on the Western Front.

Watching Mothering Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it felt like a genuine privilege to be English. Pictured: Paul, played by Josh O’Connor

Firth performs his kindly, repressed, upper-class Englishman act to absolute perfection. But in a way, Colman is the cleverer bit of casting. We are so used to that toothy dazzler of hers, a smile that could guide ships through fog, that not to see it at all is faintly disorientating.

Mrs Niven, it emerges, was heaps of fun in the old days. But now she radiates only misery and irascibility, and her daily trigger is her mild husband’s attempted bonhomie. ‘Godfrey, for goodness sake!’ she snaps, her fuse shortened by grief.

So much for the Jazz Age. So often in the movies, the 1920s roar; here, they weep.

Meanwhile, and here’s the nub of the story, Jane is having a passionate affair, necessarily clandestine because of its affront to class boundaries, with the Sheringhams’ only surviving son, Paul (Josh O’Connor). He is a law student, about to marry the imperious daughter of a third set of friends, the Hobdays.

On Mothering Sunday, when nice Mr Niven gives Jane the day off, she cycles over to the Sheringhams’ home for a tryst with Paul before he has to motor down to Henley to join his parents, along with the Nivens and Hobdays, for a picnic lunch and stilted conversation on the banks of the Thames.

With a cameo for Glenda Jackson as the elderly Jane Fairchild, Alice Birch’s beautifully crafted screenplay moves us from that 1924 day back and forth through time.

These skips forward and back gradually fill in the story; it’s like doing a really pleasurable jigsaw. But the spiritual heart of the film is when Jane, left alone at the Sheringhams’ home after Paul has reluctantly gone to join his own kind, languidly wanders naked through the big house, further defying all the social rules she is already breaking by being his secret lover.

There’s a lot of nudity in this film, including a lingering full-frontal of O’Connor that I wouldn’t mention except that his lovely performance is strikingly reminiscent of his Prince Charles in The Crown — a privileged young man in love with the wrong woman — so it’s rather startling to get such an eyeful of, as it were, the crown jewels.

Morgan Kibby’s gorgeous score — all plinky piano and plaintive strings — also deserves acknowledgment. It is as impeccably judged as everything else.

But here’s the thing: Kibby is American and Husson, the director, is French. So maybe I’m wrong to assume that to really get Mothering Sunday you need to come from the land of hope and glory. After all, the film it reminded me of most was directed by Joseph Losey, from Wisconsin. That’s The Go-Between (1971), another frightfully English period tale, adapted from a novel, of unseasonal sunshine and forbidden love.

From the sublime to the preposterous, Cry Macho is the latest movie from 91-year-old Clint Eastwood, who directs, produces and stars.

I yield to nobody in my admiration for the great man, and cowboy hats off to his continuing productivity. But he looks and acts his years now. A scene in which a voluptuous Mexican siren, maybe half a century his junior, attempts to seduce him looks like a Help the Aged wheeze gone terribly wrong.

From the sublime to the preposterous, Cry Macho is the latest movie from 91-year-old Clint Eastwood (pictured), who directs, produces and stars

The story in general is scarcely more believable, with Eastwood playing a retired rodeo rider who, despite his tremendous age, is despatched south of the border by his former employer, whose teenage son has gone rogue somewhere in Mexico City. His unlikely mission is to bring the boy back to the U.S., and we are clearly meant to invest in the odd-couple pairing as, together with a spirited cockerel named Macho, they make their misadventure-strewn way.

The scenery is jolly nice but the acting and writing are as desperately flimsy as the premise. Never mind Macho the cockerel; I’m sorry to report that old Clint has delivered a scrawny turkey.

Musicals man gets the birthday blues

Tick Tick…Boom (PG, 115 min) 

Verdict: It’s showtime! 

Rating:

Unless you are hopelessly in love with musical theatre, watching Tick, Tick . . .Boom! is akin to standing just inside the door of a fabulous party to which you haven’t been invited.

Slickly directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s a semi-autobiographical musical set in New York City and written for the stage by the late Jonathan Larson (with a screenplay by Steven Levenson), who most famously conceived the long-running Broadway hit Rent. Tragically, Larson didn’t live to reap the rewards. He died suddenly in 1996, aged just 35.

This film chronicles his efforts to hit the big time as a composer while his 30th birthday bears down on him like an unforgiving truck, his relationship with his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) falters and around him his gay friends are diagnosed with HIV.

Andrew Garfield gives a thunderous performance as Larson, a real tour de force, and there are some marvellous moments, notably a scene in which inspiration strikes while he is underwater at his local pool. But, as I say, if you’re not addicted to the world of musical theatre, it might not be for you.

Andrew Garfield (pictured, with Shipp) gives a thunderous performance as Larson, a real tour de force, and there are some marvellous moments, notably a scene in which inspiration strikes while he is underwater at his local pool

Nor, if sport’s not your thing, would I recommend two documentaries, Dettori (★★★✩✩) and Arsene Wenger: Invincible (★★★★✩).

But if it is, take a look at them both, because each tells the compelling story of an extraordinary high-achiever — jockey Frankie Dettori and Wenger, the former Arsenal manager — both of whom came to England and rose to the top, but whose ferocious will to win can be traced directly back to a fiercely strict, impossible-to-please father.

Wenger, we learn in Gabriel Clarke’s excellent film, so hated losing that he was sometimes physically sick after an Arsenal defeat (although in 2003-04 the team were unbeaten in the league, hence ‘invincible’).

Among those paying tribute are his bitterest rival, former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who explains eloquently how Wenger’s arrival made him raise his own game: ‘When you see someone coming up behind you, you accelerate.’

But for a while even the all-conquering Fergie was overtaken by the driven Frenchman. Fascinating stuff.

  • Tick, Tick . . .Boom! is in selected cinemas from today, and on Netflix from November 19. Arsene Wenger: Invincible is in cinemas now, and on digital platforms from November 22. Dettori is in cinemas and on digital platforms from Monday.

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