Spanning the critical historical time from 1929 to 1940, three young women search for love in this high-spirited adaptation of Nancy Mitford's novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.
For the earnest narrator, Fanny, a diffident teenager living with her crackpot Uncle Matthew Radlett (Alan Bates, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Hard Times) and distracted Aunt Sadie (Celia Imrie, Gormenghast), it's a simple matter of marrying a decent man.
From her safe domestic haven, she watches as her cousin Linda and dear friend Polly look for love in all the wrong places.
An impulsive romantic, the Radletts' daughter Linda (Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh) chases love throughout Europe until, penniless and in tears at a Parisian train station, she finds Mr. Right.
Meanwhile, the frosty beauty Polly (Megan Dodds), the only child of the Radletts' stuffy neighbors Lord and Lady Montdore (John Standing and Sheila Gish), contracts a marriage that shocks society and breaks her parents' hearts, driving them to seek out an alternate heir to the family fortune -- their obscure nephew Cedric Hampton (Daniel Evans), who turns out to be anything but the Canadian lumberjack the Montdores expect.
Rounding out this tale of privilege and passion are the debonair French duke, Fabrice (Samuel Labarthe); the outlandish aristocrat, Lord Merlin (John Wood); the cheerless capitalist, Tony Kroesig (Geoffrey Streatfield); the sexy communist, Christian Talbot (John Light); Fanny's flamboyant absentee mother, The Bolter (Frances Barber, Rhodes); and Linda's precociously independent little sister Jassy (Jemima Rooper, The Railway Children), who is patiently accumulating the wealth to run away and start a licentious life of her own.
With the advice of one of the surviving Mitford sisters, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, the tale is told with scrupulous attention to period detail and features as its backdrop several English castles and country houses, including Batsford Park, where the Mitford family lived from 1916 until 1919.
MAKING THE SERIES
Two of Nancy Mitford's novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, are brought vividly to life in this two-part adaptation by Deborah Moggach, directed by Tom Hooper and produced by Kate Harwood.
At the center of the drama is "the girls' story," that of the hopelessly romantic Linda Radlett (Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh); the breathtakingly beautiful but distant heiress, Polly Montdore (Megan Dodds), determined not to fulfill the destiny mapped out for her by her overbearing mother; and Fanny Logan (Rosamund Pike), a friend to both young women and connected to both families, who narrates the unfolding drama with wit and insight and herself seeks a soul mate in a turbulent world.
"The most important theme is, quite simply, the pursuit of love," says director Tom Hooper. "That's what all three of these young women are trying to do -- find love. That provides the narrative thrust for the story.
"But it is also a very astute study of manners, mores, and family groups. It is very much an ensemble piece, and I think the characters who surround the girls are, in many ways, as important as they are."
The girls lived in a time and class of rigid social structures. They were expected to marry young, usually in their early 20s. After meeting a potential suitor at a coming-out ball, often they would be engaged and married off within a year.
"But what the girls are going through is universal. It is the search to find the right partner," says Hooper. "l wanted to cut through the issues of class and get to the center of something that we can all share and relate to."
Screenwriter Deborah Moggach skillfully adapted both books, compressing the time scale to provide one narrative which takes place in the 1930s, when the second world war cast a huge shadow over Europe. Moggach's was a daunting task, but the end result is one Hooper hopes Nancy Mitford, who died in 1973, would approve of.
"My biggest challenge was to edit the books down and ruthlessly get rid of some of the characters," says Moogach. "We have to for an adaptation like this. The other challenge was to make sure that people don't dismiss this as frothy rich people running around wondering who they are going to marry. These people are doomed to disappear. They are a dying species, and their hopes and dreams are what most people's are -- particularly young women throughout history."
Producer Kate Harwood (The Beggar Bride, The Echo, David Copperfield), who has worked closely with Moggach before, points out that the books, and, indeed, Deborah's screenplay, are full of humor, and that some of the characters -- particularly Uncle Matthew (Alan Bates), Lady Montdore (Sheila Gish), and her nephew Cedric (Daniel Evans) -- are delightfully eccentric.
"We all felt that it would be a mistake to just adapt these simply as comic novels, although they are very funny," Harwood says. "What I liked about them and found surprising was how romantic they are and how heartfelt that romance is, particularly for Linda.
"Linda is a genuine protagonist. She is a character full of hope and optimism despite falling in love with the wrong people and almost not knowing herself. Despite everything, you just want her to be happy."
Part of the fascination for the creative team was that Mitford's characters are sometimes based on real people. Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie (Celia Imrie), the husband and wife at the head of the Radletts, were closely modeled on Mitford's own parents, David, Lord Redesdale, and his wife, Sydney. The fictitious Alconleigh is based on Batsford Park in the Cotswolds, where the Mitfords lived between 1916 and 1919.
"There are layers upon layers, fiction upon fact," says Moggach. "Batsford Park is where the Mitfords spent part of their childhood, and [Nancy Mitford] fictionalized it in the books. Then we filmed there, which was wonderful and rather surreal."
The production pulled off quite a coup when they gained permission to film at Batsford, now owned by a family trust. The significance was not lost on the cast. For many of the actors, filming at Batsford provided an extra layer of authenticity. "It's a rather splendid period house in which they all lived. And there is something there. You can almost see those little girls running about the place, all destined for those extraordinary fates. They really were remarkable," says actor Alan Bates.
Nancy was the eldest of the seven Mitford children. There were six girls -- Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah -- and one boy, Tom. Two of the children are still alive. Diana, Lady Mosley, now 90, resides in Paris and Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, now 81, lives at Chatsworth and provided the production with some invaluable detail.
"When I worked on David Copperfeld, we had a fantastic historical adviser, and we were jumping through the hoops to try and get someone who would help us get things right on this," explains producer Harwood.
"We wanted that detail, the extra flavor to make it as accurate as we possibly could. And then we thought, 'Hang on a minute. The executor of the novels is a well-known, charming woman who we could ask....' So we approached the Duchess, and she said yes. Tom [Hooper], Deborah, and I went up to see her, and it was wonderful fun, and very helpful."
Harwood recalls the visit: "We went to Chatsworth for tea. We weren't really there to talk about Nancy, although we loved hearing her stories, but more to find out what it was like 'coming out' in the 1930s, which is when the Duchess herself was a debutante.
"We wanted to know things like, 'Did your mother go with you to the coming-out ball? How grand were the dresses?' -- that sort of thing. She was so helpful and told us of some of the things she hated seeing in period dramas because they were wrong. One thing she mentioned was that she hates seeing servants lurking in the background. In fact, they wouldn't hang around the place; they'd simply do what they had to do and go again."
Deborah Mitford's memories inform the film. "She was very adamant about things like the girls not wearing jewelry at the coming-out balls, maybe just a pearl necklace, and certainly not heavy makeup," says Harwood. "Their mothers would stay with the girls to the very end, sometimes five nights a week. Her mother hated it, and her father would go occasionally but [he would] sit in the hallway and not take his cloak off, put his head on his stick and refuse to go inside. He loathed the whole thing, which is, of course, very like Uncle Matthew."
One of director Hooper's prime concerns was that stamp of authenticity. He was also adamant that characters not be edited to give them a more contemporary outlook. Uncle Matthew, for instance, is gloriously politically incorrect. He will rant and rave about foreigners, especially the Germans.
"I was very keen to make this an accurate and unapologetic portrait of the period and the people, and for me as a filmmaker not to make a value judgment about it," says Hooper. "With Uncle Matthew, I am presenting a character who is absolutely real. You have to remember that he is a very close portrait of Nancy's father, and when we met the Duchess of Devonshire, she made that absolutely clear.
"The humor is not necessarily setting out to make you laugh," he continues. "It comes from a very accurate portrayal of particular people, and in so doing it does make you laugh. We're not getting Uncle Matthew to do anti-German things in order to be funny, but we are saying Uncle Matthew was anti-German because that's what he was like. And you can find it funny or not.
"But you also have to remember that this was a man who fought in World War I, who would have lost friends and relatives. So it's probably not too surprising that he is anti-German. His xenophobia has a lot to do with that terrible experience."
Hooper cannot stress enough his goal of authenticity. "We've been very keen to make this piece as historically accurate as possible. I think there's a lot of pleasure to be gained from watching a period film if you think that the filmmakers are showing an authoritative version of the past. It becomes like a virtual reality tour. Our story takes place 60 to 70 years ago, although the themes are timeless."
The drama is not just set among the rarefied world of the county-set English upper classes. Linda's journey, in particular, takes her far away from Alconleigh as one disastrous relationship after another breaks down. At one point we see her in the refugee camps of Perpignan, on the French and Spanish border, and eventually she arrives in Paris, a completely changed woman from the young lady who started her quest at Alconleigh.
Love in a Cold Climate was filmed on location in Bordeaux, which doubled for Paris, while the surrounding French countryside stood in for Perpignan. Among the English locations were Batsford Park in Gloucestershire, Castle Ashby in Northamptonshire, and various locations in London.
Says producer Harwood of the cast: "There's a very short list of people who can play those parts. I endlessly pinched myself. You look down the list and see Alan Bates, Sheila Gish, Celia Imrie, Anthony Andrews, Frances Barber, and thank the heavens. And those girls, Rosamund [Pike], Elisabeth [Dermot Walsh], and Megan [Dodds], are just fantastic."
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