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Ein Festtag / Mothering Sunday

Director: Eva Husson (UK, Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Berkshire, March 1924, Mothering Sunday. A day when the servants in country manors are given the day off to visit their mothers. As it happens, this film either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that this isn’t strictly true. After all, someone’s got to prepare and serve breakfast to the people who run the manor. Milly isn’t looking forward to the afternoon – she’s got more important things to do with her time than spend it with her mother. But Jane, an orphan, is much more excited.

When Jane’s boss asks her what she’s planning to do with her day, she changes the subject as soon as she can. Fact is, she’s spending the day with Paul, one of the neighbours, in his stately home. Maybe it’s better to call Paul one of the neighbour’s sons, as property and heredity is highly important to people around here. These may be Jane and Paul’s final moments together, as he’s about to be married off to Emma, one of the local debutantes.

The film opens with the voiceover, “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed”. This partly tells us that story telling will play an important role in the film, but it also introduces Paul’s place in the scheme of things. We see a picture of young Paul and his brothers watching their racehorse. Yes, these are the sorts of people who own racehorses. Unfortunately, both brothers were killed in the war, and as one of them was supposed to marry Emma, it’s Paul duty to take over.

Back to the stately home. Paul and Jane fuck, more than once. He tells her stories of his youth. This is important because she’s going to become a famous novelist, but, it appears, women – and especially poor women – are not able to become famous novelists unless they have a rich man to let them know how it’s done.

Paul leaves to a family gathering. Among others. his parents and Emma will be there. He leaves Jane to wander around the mansion. Most of the rest of the film comprises of Jane, naked, wandering around the house. She goes into the library and looks at books. She goes into the kitchen and finds something to eat. She burps. All of the time with her kit off. This may be saying something profound, but I’d be lying if I said I knew what.

There are some other scenes. There is Jane in the 1950s – decades older but looking pretty much as old as she was when she was a servant. She’s now an aspiring novelists and her partner is a black philosopher. Now I’m all for colour blind casting but it’s a bit odd that no-one sees fit to mention his race. I’m sure this is because black philosophers in the 1950s were treated just the same as anyone else, particularly if they were sleeping with a white woman.

Ein Festtag (I’m using the German name for reasons I’ll go in later) is based on a novella by Graham Swift. A novella, note, not a novel. There is a problem with a number of films based on novels which is that they don’t have the screen time to include everything that was in the original book, which can also play havoc with the pacing. Films based on novellas can experience a quite different problem.

A novella is often based on a single concept. Which is fine if you only have a few dozen pages to fill. In a 2 hour film, you have a lot more time. So films based on novellas can quickly run out of steam once they’ve introduced the single thing that they’re about. This is, indeed, the problem here. Yes it’s interesting that a first novel may be based on an incident in the writer’s childhood. And do you have anything else to say about this? In this case, not really.

For some reason, the cinemas I get into for free have only been offering this film in the synchronised German version. The English version may have been out briefly while I was in quarantine, but I missed that. So, I may have missed some nuance, and Olivia Colman and Glenda Jackson (both high on the bill but with few lines to speak) may have been astounding. Speaking in German, they weren’t able to save this.

And then there’s Colin Firth. Colin Firth can be really good. As long as he’s not playing a repressed posho, who’s struggling with his emotions, where we’re supposed to empathise with him, but really we just want to put him against a wall. Well, in Ein Festtag he’s playing a repressed posho. It’s a role that he can play in his sleep, but that’s partly because it’s so boring and predictable.

And yes, there is a huge audience out there who loves to see big houses and the people who own them, although (because?) they have more money than we can dream of. And for some people, there’s no need for plot if you can just show a huge room containing a load of paintings, especially if there’s a nude woman walking through it. Those people are welcome to this film, but I don’t really think it’s for me.

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