The Pursuit of Love just wouldn’t leave Emily Mortimer alone. Much like its protagonist, the doggedly romantic yet free-spirited Linda Radlett, the novel followed Mortimer across time and space, waiting half a lifetime after their first meeting to present itself again, extend a hand, and ask her to go on a rousing adventure. Mortimer initially encountered the book as a teenager, “as a lot of girls in England do,” she says, projecting just above the Sunday-morning din of an espresso maker and chatter at a restaurant near her Brooklyn brownstone. She is understatedly chic in light-washed jeans, a button-down top, and white leather shoes, her brunette bangs tickling her eyebrows. “It’s always been a part of my consciousness. I remember the more-ish feeling of the book and not wanting to put it down, and how fantastically entertaining it was.”
A bestseller by Nancy Mitford published in 1945, The Pursuit of Love follows the eccentric, upper-class Radlett family — chiefly their grandly impractical daughter, Linda, and her more buttoned-up cousin, Fanny — in the volatile years between world wars. It is a sweeping tale of difficult romances, family dramas, and the hills and vales of deep, lifelong friendship, but delivered with bite and snapping wit. Decades after she first read it, Mortimer, 49, has turned the book into a beguiling three-part miniseries (released on the BBC in May and now streaming on Amazon), starring Lily James as Linda and Emily Beecham as Fanny, with zesty supporting turns by Dominic West (as patriarch Matthew Radlett), Andrew Scott (as intellectual flaneur Lord Merlin), and French-Moroccan actor Assaad Bouab as Linda’s great love, Fabrice.
The show captures the story’s big emotions and the essence of the time period, yet feels bracingly modern. Mortimer wrote the adaptation and has a small (and delightfully batty) role as Fanny’s wanderlusty absentee mother. But, most notably, the project marks her directorial debut, announcing her as a confident storyteller with a sharp eye for detail.
Given her early connection to the book — later in our conversation, she’ll refer to it as “part of my DNA” — and how faithfully she brings it to life onscreen, you’d think Mortimer had been holding a candle for the project for years. In reality, she was approached by producers Charles Collier and Matthew Read, who’d acquired the rights and thought of her to adapt it. And despite knowing and loving the story, she was hesitant. Her first thought was: “Does the world really need another period drama right now? Posh people in big houses?” But after rereading it with fresh eyes, it cracked Mortimer open in a whole new way.
“It just spoke to me so intensely about the incredibly difficult, complicated business of being alive,” she says. “I just felt forgiven. I don’t know how to explain it more than that. I felt really forgiven. I felt like all the confusion of how to deal and how to live, whether to hurl yourself at life in this abandoned way or whether to live in a more careful way, and how the fuck we’re to do it all… ” She pauses, gathering her thoughts around the novel’s central characters — Linda, who grasps at freedom, leaps at love, and considers no consequences; and Fanny, who lives a quieter, more contained life, but sometimes chafes against its restraints.
“I definitely feel, speaking personally, that it’s still difficult making mistakes as a woman,” she continues. “Men are allowed to make mistakes, or have been, historically, more than women. [But] you feel frightened of making mistakes and it stops you from living, in a way. And here’s a novel about a character who lives her life completely unapologetically and makes huge mistakes and is celebrated for it. That felt really radical, and liberating somehow. It really is a celebration of the free fucking punk-rock spirit of this woman.”
Mortimer fed her appetite for great dramas at Oxford, where she studied English and Russian literature (and Russian language). After a brief stint as a newspaper columnist in London, she kicked off a long and varied career onscreen: She was the enchanting “Perfect Girl” Hugh Grant is set up with in Notting Hill; the neurotic actress in Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing; the too-patient wife in Woody Allen’s Match Point; the steady cop tracking Michael Caine in Harry Brown; the tireless producer Mackenzie McHale in the Aaron Sorkin series The Newsroom. On and on, from blockbusters to indies, comedies to dramas, thrillers to kids’ flicks, Mortimer has been a regular presence in front of the camera for nearly 30 years. Along the way, she met and married actor Alessandro Nivola, with whom she shares two children, an 18-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. In 2013, she co-wrote the comedy series Doll & Em with her best friend, the actress Dolly Wells, in which they played slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, parsing the ins and outs of Hollywood egotism and female friendship (it concluded after two seasons). Mortimer is someone we feel like we know, in other words, yet nothing she’s done has felt so personal as this new project. And though she wasn’t sure about taking it on at the start, her history with the work runs too deep to deny.
“It was just amazing chance that this book came to me the way it did, because I don’t know that I would’ve had the guts to have done it in this moment,” Mortimer says. “But once it was suggested, it felt like I had to.”
The first in a trilogy of novels about the Radletts and Fanny Logan, The Pursuit of Love is semi-autobiographical, building its fictional twists and turns off of the even more improbable entanglements of the high-society Mitfords. And in truth, it was the Mitfords more than the Radletts that burrowed into Mortimer’s mind as a young woman. She can recount their history by memory: There were six daughters and one son raised by a dyspeptic xenophobe, a soldier-turned-nobleman who did not want his children (especially the girls) to travel abroad or be educated about the world outside the family’s stately manors. Naturally, the kids splintered off all over Europe as soon as they got the chance, running headlong into the political foment of the time. Nancy, the eldest, became a fervent socialist. She married, moved to Paris without her husband, divorced, and then carried on a 30-year, very public affair with the married leader of the Free French movement. (Linda is based on her.) Diana wed Oswald Mosley, the head of England’s facist party; they were both imprisoned after the start of World War II. Unity started fraternizing with the Nazis, including, supposedly, Hitler himself. Consumed with guilt when England declared war on Germany, she shot herself in the head — and survived. Jessica was a Communist who ran off with a nephew of Winston Churchill and fought in the Spanish Civil War (until Churchill sent Nancy on a warship to drag her back home).
“Incredibly intense, dramatic shit!” says Mortimer after a charmingly breathless recap of the basics. “There was scandal around the family that was very titillating even when I was growing up all those years later. So the actual book got lost in that.”
Mortimer learned about all of the Mitford madness mainly through Jessica’s memoir, Hons and Rebels, which was also quite popular in England in her youth, and, like Pursuit, captured the chaos of the Mitfords’ childhood. (She calls the book “my go-to if I wanted to get a dose of the Mitford thing,” and drops a reference to it in the miniseries.) The family was also an object of fascination to Mortimer’s father, a renowned lawyer, author, and screenwriter who was knighted in 1998. Sir John Mortimer was actually acquainted with Jessica Mitford, and had tried to write a radio play about Unity. “He was obsessed,” Mortimer says. “I remember him always telling me stories about them. So, they played a very big role in my life.”
All the more reason she was keenly suited to steer the adaptation. That said, directing it was not the plan at the start. So when that idea cropped up — first in casual conversation with her friend and neighbor, the director Tim Van Patten (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire), then at the more serious suggestion of Lily James, who is also an executive producer of Pursuit — Mortimer once again demurred. There was no way the studio would let her, she thought; she’d never directed anything. And anyway, she was “too shy” to go about convincing them.
But the more she considered it, the more she realized she’d written the script “very bossily,” she says, laughing. “Basically I wrote every shot. I had a lookbook and knew how I wanted it to be. It was like, if this is going to happen, it can’t feel like a stuffy costume drama. It has to feel as exciting as it does reading the book. The book really is rock & roll.” She took 24 hours to weigh James’ proposal, then took a leap of her own and said yes.
Stylistically, the series carries touches of Wes Anderson — colorful tableaus of this motley highborn family roaming a posh estate in note-perfect period costumes; a delicate tonal balance of comedy and drama. Mortimer also revisited a lot of French New Wave cinema to get into the spirit of the thing: Agnès Varda, Jules et Jim, movies that are set in a bygone era but feel very much of their moment too. For a scene where Linda dances in a nightclub in 1930s Paris, “I kept saying I wanted it to feel like Studio 54,” Mortimer says. “There’s a vibe of Englishness that’s kind of the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithfull, girls in fur coats smoking cigarettes with too much eyeliner on. I get wafts of all of that reading the book. It’s the past, but it’s also now.”
She knew she wanted a modern soundtrack, making specific song suggestions in her bossy script. The finished product features everything from “A Dandy in the Underworld” by T Rex to New Order’s “Ceremony” and Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl.” Her brother-in-law, Bad Seeds guitarist George Vjestica, assisted in choosing and securing songs, and even gathered a sort of supergroup of Covid-quarantined musicians to remotely record an original track for the project, including a couple of Bad Seeds bandmates, a Pretenders bassist, Specials keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, and Pogues legend Peter “Spider” Stacy. Mortimer’s instincts about the story’s “rock & roll soul” were proven correct when Spider told her The Pursuit of Love was his favorite book. When she requested permission to use a Marianne Faithfull song, she got a note back saying the same thing.
Collaborators and references aside, Mortimer has constructed something that feels like its own beast, born of a very distinct point of view. The part of the book most embedded in her DNA may be its rejection of earnestness and its willingness to give a robust middle finger to conventional mores. Mortimer’s father, she says, was the same way. A criminal defense attorney who represented pornographers and murderers, and famously defended the Sex Pistols in an obscenity trial, he “was constantly challenging the notion of easy moralizing,” she says. He also had a dry, dark sense of humor, something he admired in the work of his literary heroes Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse — and, yes, Nancy Mitford.
Mortimer’s household growing up was a lively one, perhaps just as much as the Radletts’ (without the sadism and nationalistic rants). Unconsciously, she may have imbued that fictional family’s gatherings with the warmly frenetic vibe of her own. Her father would hold forth at the dinner table on art and politics, while her mother, John Mortimer’s second wife and 25 years his junior, would bicker with him, an ever-present cigarette dangling from her lips. A college-educated woman from working-class roots (she makes a cameo in Pursuit, as one of the elderly women gossiping in the Ritz ladies’ room), she “wasn’t frightened of a fight,” Mortimer says. “So if my dad said something annoying, she’d be like, ‘Fucking asshole!’ ” Mortimer and her sister would get in on the arguments, “everybody getting quite drunk,” she says with a laugh. “And then everyone would cry, and then it’d be fine!”
The lack of sentimentality that both Mitford and Mortimer carry is the ballast that lets Pursuit’s emotional moments hit all the harder — and in the series, as in the book, they do hit. This writer may have teared up more than once while discussing various plot points with Mortimer (who graciously didn’t end the interview early or signal anyone nearby for help). “It’s almost like you float along on this tide of humor and wit and then suddenly something unbelievable happens and you get sucker-punched, because [Mitford’s] not laying it on at all,” Mortimer says of the narrative. “Because it comes at you sideways, it’s so much more powerful.” For her, the reliable tear-jerker is when Fanny, trying to explain her existential grist to her sweet but simple husband, says, “I may be shy, but I have a lion inside me.” “That makes me cry every time,” Mortimer says. “I think of myself as being the shy person with a lion inside.”
Yet Linda’s romanticism also resonates. We discuss a scene where Fanny scolds Linda about how there’s more to life than love, and Linda retorts, “What else is there?” Mortimer throws up her hands. “What else is there, really? Especially after all this shit we’ve just been through,” she muses, referring to the last year-plus of pandemic and social upheaval. “What else matters?”
On the central question of how to live — recklessly, like Linda, or cautiously, like Fanny — the series doesn’t seem to come down on one side or the other. Mortimer is generous with every character, even the unhinged Matthew Radlett or some of Linda’s less-than-upstanding paramours. The Pursuit of Love is a judgment-free zone. In fact, Mortimer says she “started to enjoy” toggling back and forth between Linda and Fanny’s points of view while making the show, “and realizing that neither of them are right and neither of them are wrong. You can go, ‘Oh, Fanny’s life’s so boring, she’s so conventional and smug, much better to be like Linda.’ And then you’re like ‘Oh, no, but that’s crazy!’
“It sort of scares me, moral certitude,” she adds. “When people know they’re right. Even if they are. And there’s so much of that in the world right now.” Instead, the forgiveness that she found in The Pursuit of Love, and gives back to us through her adaptation, is rooted in a very simple idea, one that’s as true today as it was for Nancy Mitford some 80 years ago: “It’s all, you know, kind of absurd.” Life, that is. “A disastrous situation. But beautiful, too. And here we are, struggling through it. No one’s right, no one’s wrong; we’re all just fucking lost, but it’s OK.”