Emily Mortimer makes her directorial bow with this stylish, uproarious adaptation of Nancy Mitford's classic novel
When period adaptations are so ubiquitous, how do you inject them with style and verve?
This was the question posed to Emily Mortimer, who is well known for her prior acting roles in Shutter Island, Lars and the Real Girl and Mary Poppins Returns. She wrote and directed the BBC / Amazon adaptation of The Pursuit of Love, which stars Lily James, Emily Beecham, Andrew Scott and Dominic West and debuted on BBC One in May 2021.
Mortimer recently told The Guardian: "God knows, probably if Nancy Mitford saw it, she’d be turning in her grave. I wanted to feel the excitement and the danger and the longing, the kind of irreverence I feel when I’m reading the book. I was trying all the time to think of ways of communicating that visually."
With a contemporary soundtrack, whimsical air and stylised look that's reminiscent of someone like Wes Anderson, Mortimer's version of The Pursuit of Love strays a long way from similar adaptations set during the same period between the two World Wars.
But then, the novel itself is more progressive than many would expect. As Mortimer herself said in the same Guardian interview, “I was just so struck by how wickedly funny, completely allergic to earnestness, how radical it still feels about women. It just felt like a breath of air, you just felt forgiven reading it.”
Outpost were enlisted to support Emily Mortimer and the production team at Moonage Pictures to help get a very specific style across and enhance many of the miniseries' sequences with DMP work and CG environments.
"The Pursuit of Love was a really interesting project both creatively and technically," explains Cale Pugh, VFX Supervisor.
"The show has its own style and Emily was keen that all the VFX belonged in the world she had envisaged. For us it was important to make everything feel real but within a heightened reality that fits seamlessly into the aesthetic of the show.
"The opening shot in episode one is a good example of this where we needed it to be London in the 1940s with factories and smoke, but still light, vibrant and not Dickensian. To achieve this we drew influence from Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
"Dame Laura Knight painted a view from Cheney Walk in 1935 that was a big influence on the opening shot and the views down the river from the rooftop."
The Pursuit of Love was one of the very first UK productions to get off the ground again following the disruption caused by the pandemic, something that posed unique challenges for our VFX team.
"Flexibility was key," explains Josh Sykes, VFX Producer. He had recently overseen the remote production of visual effects for the Paul Greengrass Western, News of the World, when The Pursuit of Love was awarded.
"As with all productions since the start of remote working, we had to adapt our internal procedures and working style to fit around the client's specific situation.
"Ensuring we were communicative and available to Emily and the crew at all times was key to our success, and lessons learned from News of the World helped us to manage a team of remote artists and ensure they felt happy, motivated and creatively challenged."
Many sequences were set in real-world locations including London and Paris, and as with all historical productions VFX provision was essential to sell the period to viewers and help Mortimer to frame her story in an immersive world.
"While the VFX was mostly centred around real and historical locations, Emily was keen to give the world its own unique style and personality," explains Pugh. "We took a lot of inspiration from paintings depicting Chelsea and the river to try and give some environments a more dreamlike, artistic finish. The challenge was trying to achieve this while keeping us linked to the actual locations and plate photography.
"The environment I am most pleased with is the Gare du Nord station. We used the Green Park station in Bath as a stand in for filming which was a great reference for us. The team here went up to that location and scanned the physical station which we then perfectly re-created in CG. We could use this scan to expand the size of the station, adding two platforms either side of the main one. After we added the train smoke and extras the whole thing looked pretty seamless."
In addition to a vast CG set extension that helped us create the famous Parisian train station, we also built CG docklands and London city environments combined with DMP to extend green screen footage and add scale to early 20th-century London.
This kind of subtle environment extension made up the bulk of our work on The Pursuit of Love, alongside bombed-out CG streets, Paris skylines, crowd replication and much more.
"We were really excited to work with Emily and her team on The Pursuit of Love," concludes Sykes. "It's a really bold vision of what period adaptations can be and adds a fresh voice to the genre. I'm really proud of our team once again for delivering another beautiful body of work even with most artists working remotely."