The Pursuit of Love (2021)

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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.

The real-life Mitford sisters: Unity, Diana, and Nancy.

The real-life Mitford sisters: Unity, Diana, and Nancy (author of the source novel).

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.

Yves Saint Laurent, 1971

1970s does 1940s: Yves Saint Laurent, 1971

Women's Wear Daily, 1974

1970s does 1940s: Women’s Wear Daily, 1974

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:

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THE HAIR. It’s too long and too beachy. Otherwise, nice tweedy, rumped, lived-in looks.

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Looking very naturalistic. (C) Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited – Photographer: Robert Viglasky

Mitford sisters

The real Mitford sisters looked like real people, and frequently wore very tweedy, sporty, practical clothing. The Mitford sisters via theweek.co.uk.

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).

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I guess they don’t own an iron?

1920s - Eleanor Boardman, actress - robe de style

Compare with the real (and super glamorous) late 1920s robe de style.

Joan Clement in Lanvin's crystal embellished robe de style by Edward Steichen, Vogue, November 1 1926

Joan Clement in Lanvin’s crystal embellished robe de style by Edward Steichen, Vogue, 1926.

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).

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Linda’s yellow scarf gets worn repeatedly as her touchstone, but I’m not sure what’s so quirky about it?

“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).

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Linda’s communist look. (C) Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited – Photographer: Robert Viglasky

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Coming back from working with Spanish Civil War refugees.

Mitford sisters

The Mitford sisters (and, second from left, brother) in Oxfordshire, 1935. Credit…The Illustrated London News Picture Library, London, UK, via Bridgeman Images

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).

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These looks in particular just screamed 1970s secretary to me.

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Ditto, although at least they’re wearing a tighter curl in their hair.

Nancy Mitford by Bassano Ltd, 1935, National Portrait Gallery

Compare to the real Nancy Mitford, who is wearing a flat wave in her short hair, and whose dress has bell sleeves and a slimmer silhouette. Nancy Mitford by Bassano Ltd, 1935, National Portrait Gallery

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).

and,

“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).

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Cecil Beaton, Mozart theme, 1930, Mary Evans Picture Library

An example of one of the crazy parties thrown by Cecil Beaton (this one with a Mozart theme), 1930, Mary Evans Picture Library

Photo by Karl Grill via The Charnel-House

The group also reminded me of the Bauhaus costume parties | Photo by Karl Grill via The Charnel-House

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Emily Mortimer as Fanny’s mother, The Bolter, had a particularly quirky wardrobe.

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).

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Linda’s wedding dress.

Wedding Dress, 1933, designed by Norman Hartnell, worn by Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, Victoria & Albert Museum

The inspiration: Wedding Dress, 1933, designed by Norman Hartnell, worn by Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, Victoria & Albert Museum

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Notice how much Linda’s wedding portrait…

Diana Mitford Guinness wedding, 1929, via Wikimedia Commons

Resembles Diana Mitford’s wedding photo | Diana Mitford Guinness wedding, 1929, via Wikimedia Commons

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).

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Okay, so that neckline is very 1930s, but otherwise I’m definitely getting all the 1970s vibes.

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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.

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Gorgeous!

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Chic!

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A bit more of that dress.

I do wish there had been LOTS more fabulous hats, as that is something so typical and special about the 1930s.

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One attempt at an interesting hat on Fanny.

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And another on Linda. They could have done better.

My main disappointment was Assaad Bouab as Fabrice de Sauveterre. As I told Trystan and Sarah:

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THE MAN IS A WORK OF ART. And on screen, in character? ALL SAD TROMBONE.

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I think it was partially the hair?

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The overly groomed facial hair?

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I just found him cheesy!!

Although Dominic West was still my boyfriend even when he’s playing a cranky racist:

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And my main happiness? MEET PLON PLON:

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BABY PLON PLON

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GROWED UP PLON PLON

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GRUMPY BULLDOG FACE

The Pursuit of Love 2021 - Plon Plon

I feel you, Andrew. I feel you.

 

 

What did you think of The Pursuit of Love and its costumes?

12 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

    I’ve seen both of the earlier miniseries, the one from the early 80’s with Judi Dench and Lucy Gutteridge and the most recent with Rosamund Pike and Megan Dodds. I found it interesting that Emily Mortimer decided to adapt just the Pursuit of Love instead of combining both books. I did miss Polly’s story a bit although I did like that you get more of Linda and Fanny’s friendship in this version. I just feel like Lily James plays the same characters over and over again, and I didn’t much care for Linda in this version. I found the contemporary music jarring but I loved the costumes and Dominic West made quite a good Fa.

    Reply
  2. Constance

    I much preferred both of the earlier adaptations…and did miss Polly, Boy etc…I think Fanny was meant to be the sober, sensible type as played in the previous shows but have the book to read again to be sure…did not like her much as shown in this new one. The music was just annoying so I ignored it. I am not a fan of Dominic West ever since The Affair but this role suited him. Overall this version just made me go back and rewatch the other two.

    Reply
  3. Holly

    I knew she took inspiration from Sofia Coppola when that New Order song came on. It just didn’t hit the same though. I don’t mind modern music in a period movie but it has to be done well! The New Order song has such a great build up and it was put over a scene where two of the characters are just sitting around… what?!

    Reply
  4. Lynne Connolly

    I loved this version. It had spirit, and oh yes, the Frenchman! He got a gasp from me when he appeared. Loved the clothes, too, and I liked the shabby things at the beginning, and the horrid debut dresses. Lily James was born to play this part.

    Reply
  5. M.E. Lawrence

    Damn. I get the feeling I won’t quite approve of this version. But that Lanvin robe de style! I so wish I had been born in about 1880, so I could have lived a fashion revolution and then perhaps been able to afford couture in my 50s.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      Personally I think the combination of no waist with paniers makes a rather awful silhouette.

      Reply
  6. Popka Superstar

    I honestly thought the costuming was fine, though I agree with your criticisms, but the hair just totally ruined it for me, all the more because they do it right for a bit, so why not do it right the whole time? The long hair just makes it all look 70s. No conservative father would have let his daughters run around with loose long hair in a million years.

    It’s also why they couldn’t do the hats, because the hats looks stupid with long hair. Some of the hats are 40s in the 30s, too. NOBODY had that long loose hair in the 20s and 30s. You either had it short or wore it pinned up. Even in the 40s quite a few people resisted growing their hair longer again.

    I know the novel extremely well, and I thought the characterisation was alright, except for the final hard swing into explicit feminism at the end, which I don’t feel is what the book was saying. Nancy Mitford wrote a few more progressive books but these books are nostalgia-driven, and after the war feminism was passe.

    Reply
    • Popka Superstar

      Have to amend my comment that early in the 20s, young girls could have that loose long hair with Mary Pickford curls, but I’ve only seen that on regular people a few times, and I think only on Americans.

      Reply
      • MoHub

        Many women in the ’20s who were too chicken to cut their hair wore it wrapped in such a way as to look as if their hair was bobbed, even though it wasn’t. Loose hair, though, not so much.

        Reply
  7. Flynn Lord

    I did not like this at all. I do think it was a waste of money and they could have done much, much better, certainly in terms of adapting the novel, costuming, sets, casting and the general vibe. While the 2004 version was slower i think that one was much much more splendid in every regard.

    Reply

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