The Pursuit of Love (2021) starring Lily James has finally aired in the U.S., and being a fan of the earlier adaptation (Love in a Cold Climate) as well as the Mitford sisters (one of whom — Nancy — wrote the source novel), I was on it! I have read the original novel, but unfortunately it’s been so many years that my memory has been overwritten with 2001’s Love in a Cold Climate. As I explained in that review,
“The real Nancy Mitford and her sisters had a very eccentric childhood, and they grew up to be gorgeous, stylish, and sometimes scandalous in the 1930s and beyond: Nancy was a novelist/biographer and socialite; Diana was a socialite and fascist; Unity became a devotee of Hitler; Jessica moved to the US where she became an author and communist; and Deborah became the 10th Duchess of Devonshire. The novels are semi-autobiographical and they are witty, sparkling, and highly entertaining.“
This version was the directorial debut of actress Emily Mortimer (Bright Young Things, Mary Poppins Returns), who also wrote the screenplay. And, of course, her approach was to modernize the story in order to make it relevant to contemporary audiences (yawn):
“To me, the book is a very rock and roll, I think it’s got a punk-rock soul for many reasons and there’s a wildness to it… I realized going along that it wasn’t a mistake that I thought this was kind of a rock and roll story, because all these rock and rollers had obviously seen something in the book that spoke to them… I was very inspired by lots of things. I looked at lots of French New Wave movies. That’s probably a terrible cliche, but I did; I looked at Agnes Varda movies, I looked at Jules et Jim, which you realize is a period film, but set in the 1960s. I wanted it to feel like it was a sort of French New Wave film that was about the 1930s. I also watched all of Sofia Coppola’s movies again, because I love her, and I took a lot of inspiration from Marie Antoinette; actually, the New Order song is completely stolen from Marie Antoinette. It’s a little homage to Sofia Coppola, because the way she dealt with period in that movie felt really exciting to me. I wanted this to be as entertaining for people to watch as it was for me to reread the book all these years later” (Emily Mortimer on Writing, Directing, and Starring in The Pursuit of Love).
So yes, the three-part series includes a mix of modern and period music, and Mortimer’s directorial style is definitely more frenetic and chaotic than the much more classic Love in a Cold Climate. Which, was semi-annoying because this is something that’s been done to death, and was so obviously derivative of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. That being said, I was decently entertained and only rolled my eyes a few times. I wasn’t sure about how they made Fanny’s character a bit of a ditz, but I can’t remember the novel clearly enough to know whether that’s accurate; I did love the intensity and almost romantic/sexual connection between best friends Linda and Fanny, which rings true to my own experience of female friendship.
On to the costumes! They were designed by relative newcomer Sinéad Kidao, whose only period credit is two of the Small Axe films, all of which focus on West Indian immigrants in 1960s-80s London (highly recommended!). Overall, they were well-designed in that they suited Mortimer’s more modern take, meaning they often trended 1970s, which was a conscious decision. As a fashion historian, this also irritated me, because the 1970s drew much more on the 1940s than 1930s, but whatever.
The series starts off with main character Linda and best friend/narrator Fanny aged 17, in the late 1920s. According to designer Kidao,
“Linda and her siblings are wild and bored … what they wear is a bit erratic and messy, a mix of hand-me-down tweeds, jodhpurs and riding boots” (Job Description: Costume designer).
I do like that they captured the real lived-in look worn by the Mitfords (and many others) in this era; the scraggy hair was even okay, although far too long and beachy:
For their coming out ball, in the late 1920s, the girls are wearing frumpy versions of the robe de style: “[Director] Emily Mortimer wanted Linda and Fanny to look sweet and girly, and not at all sophisticated” (Look of love: The story behind the costumes in The Pursuit of Love).
According to Kidao and Mortimer, they did a ton of research looking through period imagery, and as I haven’t, I’m going to bow to their knowledge:
“As well as studying the Mitfords themselves, the design team looked through the archives of society photographers like Bassano and Lafayette, studying girls born around 1910, for inspiration. There was one honourable lady, who featured in photographs from the 1920s through to the 1930s, who was always dressing up and wearing things in quite an unexpected way. She wore scarves around her head, big overblown flowers and mis-matched jewellery … Linda styled herself in an unconventional way” (Look of love: The story behind the costumes in The Pursuit of Love).
“As they grow up and go in different directions, Linda’s style regularly changes. We felt that Linda was always ‘dressing the part,’ particularly in her adult years, from the glamorous socialite in the early 1930s, to life as a communist and then as a mistress in Paris” (Job Description: Costume designer).
Back to that modern take on 1930s style … according to designer Kidao,
“We leaned into the most idiosyncratic and unexpected looks … Sometimes you would look at how someone had styled themselves and think ‘is that really the 1930s?’” (Costume Designer Sinead Kidao’s Modern Mitford Style Is Delightfully Audacious).
What will definitely divide audiences will be Andrew Scott (the hot priest from Fleabag) as Lord Merlin, the aristocratic gay neighbor who takes an interest in Linda. Personally, I thought he was too young for the role, but that’s because I’m thinking of the actor from Love in a Cold Climate. According to Kidao,
“For Andrew’s interpretation of Lord Merlin, we based a lot on Cecil Beaton (a British photographer), and we had images of him in silk loose pajamas … Nothing they’re wearing is us exaggerating what it was. They were aristocrats, they were wealthy, they had access to huge resources, and they went to town on it. We really didn’t want to shortchange that moment. Reading a description of a party Cecil Beaton threw, and what everyone was wearing at the time, how he orchestrated it, it was so theatrical, it wasn’t just turn up in fancy dress — he specifically asked different people to come in different outfits, and he had two outfit changes” (The Pursuit of Love Brings Studio 54 to World War II).
“We wanted to couple the eccentric aristocratic British style that the Mitford family embodied with the high-fashion styles of the 1920s and 1930s. Nancy Mitford was part of the ‘Bright Young Thing’ set — a group of young people growing up between the wars. They were wealthy socialites and they could afford to wear what they wanted, however they wanted” (Job Description: Costume designer).
Linda’s wedding made me happy as it leaned much more 1930s, being inspired by the wedding dress of the Duchess of Argyll from 1932. According to Kidao,
“The bodice is vintage and was re-worked to add a skirt and fluted sleeves, 8-foot train and veil. The fashion for wedding dresses at this time was medieval-inspired, with heavy embroidery and wide fluted sleeves” (Look of love: The story behind the costumes in The Pursuit of Love).
One key look is the gold evening gown Linda wears when she’s in her Bright Young Things socializing period. According to the BBC, “The production designer Cristina Casali was inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, so that film was used as a starting inspiration for the costume too, to complement the set” (Look of love: The story behind the costumes in The Pursuit of Love). Director Mortimer says of this scene/costume, “A lot of 1930s costumes do feel sometimes like ’70s costumes, and the gold dress could be in the ’70s. I always wanted that nightclub to feel, like they were in Studio 54” (The Pursuit of Love Brings Studio 54 to World War II).
A more successfully glamorous series of looks are Linda’s Paris wardrobe, worn right in 1939. She wears her hair up and embraces Paris chic through various black and white dresses. According to Vogue, many of these dresses are real vintage pieces from Parisian houses of the 1930s, which Kidao sourced on eBay.
I do wish there had been LOTS more fabulous hats, as that is something so typical and special about the 1930s.
My main disappointment was Assaad Bouab as Fabrice de Sauveterre. As I told Trystan and Sarah:
THE MAN IS A WORK OF ART. And on screen, in character? ALL SAD TROMBONE.
Although Dominic West was still my boyfriend even when he’s playing a cranky racist:
And my main happiness? MEET PLON PLON:
What did you think of The Pursuit of Love and its costumes?