The Pursuit of Love is a romantic comedy-drama set in Europe between the two World Wars. It follows the misadventures of the fearless Linda Radlett, played by Lily James (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Cinderella, Baby Driver) and her best friend and cousin Fanny Logan, played by Emily Beecham (Little Joe, Cruella).
Under newly formed COVID protocols the series was shot last summer in bright, large-roomed and — importantly for social distancing — airy British mansions like Gloucestershire’s Badminton Estate and Rousham House in Oxfordshire (the location for Alconleigh, the Radletts’ grandly dilapidated manor).
Emily Mortimer, the director of this BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s not very well disguised book about her own family, is a well-known actress in her own right (Notting Hill, Shutter Island, Mary Poppins Returns). For The Pursuit of Love, she wanted a pastel and filmic feel and sought out references as diverse as Agnes Varda, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, even Ingmar Bergman’s home videos.
She explained to the BBC Writers Room the driving force that made her chase the show. “My agent is obsessed by the book and everything to do with Nancy Mitford. She secured the rights and asked me about two or three years ago if I’d consider adapting it. I had loved the book as a teenager and had got into Jessica Mitford and her stories too, but generally the whole Mitford phenomenon had fascinated me from an early age.
“When my agent asked me if I’d have a go at adapting it, I said yes immediately. I re-read the book and immediately thought yes even more. When I look back on it, I realized I’d been talking about the project like a director. I had set mood boards and I knew how I wanted it to look, feel and sound. I had been making a world.”
“Mortimer… splashes the screen with cheeky lower thirds, occasionally denoting throwaway side characters with names like ‘Important Person’ or ‘Bitchy Ladies at the Ritz,’ ” Yohana Desta writes in Vanity Fair. “She does not resist camp, but instead strides toward it, marrying Mitford’s humor to modern, over-the-top flourishes. The treatment might not be restrained enough for historical purists or Mitford enthusiasts — but it is an accessible, lovingly made adaptation coursing with romance.”
“This is a period drama that makes fun of its period’s stuffiness, playing on its stilted conventions,” Anna Russell writes in her review for The New Yorker. “Mortimer’s adaptation injects new life into Nancy Mitford’s sharpest observations,” she notes. “Andrew Scott, who played the ‘hot priest’ in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, is deliciously entertaining as Lord Merlin, the Radletts’ over-the-top neighbor, who puts on Dada plays in his back yard and dyes his pigeons bright colors. (‘Oh, no, they love it. They love it. Makes them so pretty for each other.’)”
During a time when women were expected to marry and remain obedient, moving their obedience from father to husband, Linda becomes a sexually liberated social renegade, while the prim Fanny takes the more conventional route and ultimately finds herself stifled in her role as a stay-at-home wife.
Mitford’s novel had an inherently punk rock quality, Mortimer said in an interview with The New York Times. While a teenager, her father had also given her a copy of “Hons and Rebels,” the 1960 memoir written by Nancy Mitford’s sister, Jessica.
“Dad was obsessed with that book,” Mortimer recounted. “I remember a story he was always quoting from it. Whenever the reprobate Mitford sisters were asked by their desperate mother to sit with pens and paper and write down how they’d economize for a household on 200 pounds a year, Nancy without fail would write ‘£199: flowers.’”
Mortimer loved the story because of how it rejects what she called “old-fashioned patriarchal preconceptions about how women should be — organized, sensible, good, selfless,” adding, “it’s punk rock behavior in my opinion.”
British director of photography Zac Nicholson, BSC (The Death of Stalin) shot the movie in 4K with ARRI Mini LF and ARRI’s Signature Prime lenses (Amazon Prime is now carrying the show, so it needed the 4K HDR deliverable). The camera operator was John Hembrough, using mostly a Steadicam as the A camera.
The mood boards and references from Mortimer persuaded Nicholson to use a particular LUT that he had been developing for some time with his regular digital imaging technician, Harry Bennet-Snewin. “It has a richness without being too gaudy,” Nicholson said in an interview with British Cinematographer. “Colorist Simone Grattarola from Time Based Arts then did a beautiful job translating that into the final palette.”
Grattarola looked to traditional film methods to grade the series, but those references initialized the look, Nicholson said. “These were starting points for us and we drew on them and began to understand how the palettes of our references were constructed. We used some of the film methods in how we approached the grade, taking a more sophisticated and subtle approach.”
Period dramas in grand country houses always have scale to them to couch the shot composition and blocking of the show. Working in such large spaces required the crew to rely heavily on LED balloons from SkyLite, including its 8’ x 8’ x 3’ mattress fixture to diffuse the light over large areas.
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“Managing sun is also an issue in country houses, especially as big rooms are often south facing with huge windows,” Nicholson commented. “The interiors are not designed to intimidate like many country houses, but have a more human, welcoming scale.”
The Pursuit of Love is available on Amazon Prime and the BBC iPlayer.