Many English novels of the 20th C. had a restrained, guarded tone, where disclosures and motives were quietly or elliptically revealed: dramas of hidden secrets meted out in small gestures or coded language. I’m thinking of works from Virginia Wolff and Anthony Powell, through Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, to Julian Barnes and Ian McEwen. Another one of that lineage is Graham Swift who made his novelistic debut in 1986 and is probably best known for his work “Waterland.” Swift’s latest fiction is “Mothering Sunday,” published in 2016 and now a feature film directed by French director Eva Mussen. Its current version in theaters finds it a cinematically exquisite if occasionally torpid drama of the privileged (Opening on April 1 at local indie cinemas, the film runs 104 mins and is rated “R” for nonchalant nudity).
We are in the English countryside, in lolling landscapes dotted with mid-sized mansions of the aristocracy. The film takes place on March 30, 1924, in that “Downtown Abbey” world changed by the trauma of World War I, which has decimated family lines and their future male heirs. The Sheringham family has lost two sons to the war, and their eldest son, Paul (Josh Cooper) is studying for the law but seems wayward and unfocussed.
Paul does have his easy pleasures in a long-term affair with the maid of the Nivens, neighbors and close friends of the Sheringhams. Jane Caulfield (Odessa Young) is a reserved orphan who has come to care about Paul, even though he is engaged to be married to a young woman of his class. On “Mothering Sunday,” a day in which servants are permitted the afternoon off to return home and spend time with their mothers, we see the couple enjoying their standard liaison, for the first time at Paul’s house, Upleigh. When Paul leaves for a family picnic, Jane, who is just discovering her literary bent, lingers around the house in the nude, examining the secrets of the toffs, caressing book spines in the library, and eating delicacies from the kitchen.
At the picnic, the Sheringhams wait for Paul with their neighbors, the aggrieved Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman). They have also lost two sons and been terribly wounded by the experience. It is only later that day, when Jane arrives back at the Nivens’ house, that she learns of a terrible tragedy.
All of this story spins out in a leisurely pace, punctuated by abrupt flash-forwards of Jane’s new life, where she is involved with an older, erudite figure who develops a debilitating disease. The time switches can be disruptive and hard to follow, making the narrative more sluggish than it needs to
be. Adding to the confusion is the uneven development of Jane’s character, who comes across as fitful and uncertain.
What is not uncertain is the stunning cinematography by Jamie Ramsay, whose lens captures the mood of languid leisure perfectly and in ravishing color. He typically opens a scene with a gorgeous set piece—in a manse, at a picnic table, over a field—then has the protagonists move wanly through them, in a state of elegiac grace.
An experienced mountain rescuer, Pam Bales (Naomi Watts), undertakes a familiar route up Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of Vermont near her home but turns back before reaching the summit when a blizzard approaches. On her way back, however, she encounters footprints which lead to a man who is barely alive, dressed as if he were going to the beach. (The film, rated ”R,” is 98 minutes of mostly snow-lashed storm).
Pam takes it upon herself to get them both down the mountain before nightfall arrives and they succumb to the 80-mile-per-hour winds of the storm. The man, who she comes to call “John” (English actor Billy Howle, last seen in “On Chesil Beach”) is uncommunicative and weak, but she urges and drags him along, provides food and extra clothing, and quietly assures him everything will be all right.
Since this is a drama, they first encounter a snow hole, which throws them down a crevasse festooned with tree branches (allowing them to climb their way out — barely). While trapped in the hole, Pam’s thoughts flash back
to golden scenes with her two young daughters.
Then John gets his foot injured on a rock, but Pam is an expert nurse and is able to keep him afoot in a stumbling limp. He eventually gains some strength and finally speaks, but his view is sour and he muses on dying, an attitude which dogged Pam cannot accept. All this struggle occurs through very lifelike roaring wind and snow, and finally to its resolution.
Watts, a veteran of ninety films of every stripe, has done survivor stories before, most memorably in “The Impossible,” (2012) the story of a family’s struggle during and after a South Asian tsunami. In that film, she won an Oscar nomination for playing an indominable mom trying to keep her family together after the disaster. Here she is even tougher in another film of cataclysm that gets the heart pulsing early and doesn’t let up. It is based on the true story of veteran mountaineer/rescuer Pam Bale told in a 2016 magazine article, which screenwriter Joshua Rollins adapted for the screenplay. Photography by Michael Englert puts you right in the deadly eye of this winter storm.
The director of “Infinite Storm” is Malgorazata Szumowksa, one of Poland’s most prominent filmmakers, who decided to shoot mountain scenes in Slovenia during the COVID-19 outbreak. She specifically wanted the athletic Watts as her protagonist and got both her wish and a convincing thriller.
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of the book “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.