Camp Chaos, Stylishly Superlative – A Review of Emily Mortimer’s ‘The Pursuit of Love’

Published on: 21st May 2021

‘Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur’ – so runs journalist Ben Macintyre’s attempt to anatomize the baffling and at times grotesque world of the Mitford sisters, memorialized in Nancy’s 1945 semi-autobiographical novel. The novel bequeaths an awkward and often shocking legacy, detailing a world of aristocratic privilege in parodic proportions: ‘a world of superlatives,’ to quote the narrator of Emily Mortimer’s new BBC adaptation, of a ‘chaos and confusion’ which it is (rightfully) challenging to reckon with.

Unsurprisingly, then, directors of Mitford adaptions often struggle with how to pitch a tone in re-describing this world, where debutantes and bright young things cavort with Nazi-sympathizers and communists in crumbling decadence. Previous attempts have seen this complex novel reduced to simple nostalgia, re-rendered as an alternative Brideshead Revisited, or transformed into a kind of ‘Wodehouse-with-women,’ to quote Lucy Mangan’s rave review of Mortimer’s mini-series in the Guardian, where satire reigns and all seriousness is flattened out. The original – incidentally exactly the kind of novel to have been published in Dean Street’s Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, had we been around at the time – isn’t quite either of these things, but it’s just as tricky to say where it sits in between them as well.

Mortimer’s adaptation deals with these intricacies through the lens of a Wes Anderson-esque high camp, with sumptuous shots, bright colouring and an immaculately-pitched script – all much in keeping with recent period dramas and literary adaptations, such as Autumn de Wilde’s Emma in 2020. This stylistic decision allows the utter absurdity of the Radlett set to shine through, without transforming Mitford’s characters into caricatures – a temptation it’s always been difficult to resist. Linda Radlett, sparklingly played by Lily James, could have easily fizzled into semi-irritating childishness; Uncle Matthew (Dominic West) could easily be cast as a monstrous ogre – but Mortimer’s adaptation manages to act out the lunacy of these characters, this setting, and the whole world of the novel, without letting the audience disengage.

Perhaps the biggest success of Mortimer’s work with the novel is her resistance of the impulse to Austenize, escaping the eternal Regency which tends to gobble up literary adaptations of this kind. While some Mitford devotees have taken issue with the injections of glam rock into the soundtrack, for instance, or the lavish and not-so-subtle queer-coding of the bright young things – led by Andrew Scott’s miraculously compelling Lord Merlin – these anachronistic touches help bring to life an era of extremes, and throw into relief the otherwise meticulous attention to detail which characterizes the production. Whereas previous adaptations have chosen to largely truncate, or even remove entirely, portions of the novel dealing with the Spanish Civil War and subsequent migrancy crisis, for instance, or the fashion for fascism amongst the Interwar upper echelons, Mortimer deftly weaves in this wider historical context, while still allowing space for classically Mitfordian fun.

As the three-episode mini-series progresses, there’s a tendency for its disparate plot elements to lose some steam, jumbling into a profuse tangle of smaller narratives – particularly in the second episode, as distance enters into the previously central friendship between Linda and her cousin Fanny, played by Emily Beecham. While the adaptation might have benefitted from a few more episodes, the show is held together by Beecham’s performance – both as Fanny the character, and the voiceover narrator. While maybe a less exciting role than Linda, Beecham lends Fanny a graceful poise and steady control which manages to tie the ‘chaos and confusion’ of Mitford’s milieu together, and ultimately makes this an adaptation to remember.

Frazer Martin
Twitter: @frazer_martin1

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