Amazon Prime – Emily Mortimer and the Vulgar Dahlias
When the actress Emily Mortimer was growing up, in London, her father, the dramatist Sir John Mortimer, would tell her tales of the Mitford sisters. The six aristocratic siblings were raised in isolation in the English countryside, where they developed a private language called Boudledidge, and they led adventuresome lives in the years between the wars. Nancy and Diana became part of the fashionable set the Bright Young Things, and another sister, Unity, befriended Hitler. “My dad talked often of this family of fascinating, extreme women, two of whom were allied with the Fascist Party, two of whom were allied with the Communist Party, and one of whom was a duchess,” Mortimer recalled recently. “In fact, he knew Jessica Mitford, the Communist, and I remember her coming for lunch when I was very young.”
In 1945, Nancy Mitford fictionalized her eccentric upbringing and romantic misadventures in her novel “The Pursuit of Love,” which Mortimer discovered as a teen-ager. She has now adapted it into a whimsical BBC miniseries (it premièred on Amazon Prime last week), starring Lily James as a thrill-seeking débutante. But don’t expect swelling violins: Mortimer, who also directed, gave the series an anachronistic soundtrack that includes Le Tigre, Sleater-Kinney, and T. Rex. “I just think it’s got a bit of a punk-rock soul, that book,” she said, walking through Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband, the actor Alessandro Nivola. She had just passed the restaurant where she spent days laboring over the script. She recalled, “A waiter came up to me at one point and said, ‘Have you finished your map of the universe yet?’ ”
One key to the Mitford universe: flowers. Jessica Mitford, in her memoir, “Hons and Rebels,” from 1960, recalled that her mother, educating the girls in household economy, “once offered a prize of half a crown to the child who could produce the best budget for a young couple living on £500 a year; but Nancy ruined the contest by starting her list of expenditures with ‘Flowers . . . £490.’ ” Mortimer borrowed the line for “The Pursuit of Love.” “I remember my dad quoting that from Jessica’s book,” she said. She reached a small house in Cobble Hill and rang the bell. In the spirit of aristocratic leisure, Mortimer had signed up for a private flower-arranging class at something called Fleur Elise Bkln. The door opened: Fleur Elise Bkln turned out to be the home of Elise Bernhardt, a sixtysomething woman with a salt-and-pepper pixie cut. She led Mortimer to a rambling back yard.
Bernhardt started teaching the class in 2018, she said, after a trip to Japan exposed her to ikebana, a classical form of flower arranging. “Ikebana is very precise—which is why I study it, because I’m not,” she explained. She began by asking her pupil to share a flower-related memory. “My dad loved gardening, and he had this big display of dahlias,” Mortimer recalled. “I remember his first wife coming through the garden to visit. I must have been a little girl, and my dad went, ‘Aren’t the dahlias looking marvellous?’ And she went, ‘It’s a very vulgar flower.’ ” Mortimer’s face fell, as it had then.
Moving on, Bernhardt, who used to run a dance nonprofit, said, “Let me introduce you to our characters here—because, really, you’re making a dance in a vase.” Lined up in tubs were the dramatis personae: gerbera daisies, alstroemerias, leucadendrons, thistles, bear grass, sweet william. Bernhardt asked Mortimer to pick a vase—she chose a chipped Tunisian pitcher that Bernhardt had found at a flea market—and instructed, “I want you to decide who’s the star of your show.”
Mortimer selected celosia, a bunchy, ruffled flower that Bernhardt thought looked like brains, but which reminded Mortimer of petticoats. Bernhardt told her to start with three—“You want things asymmetrical”—and to leave room for negative space. “By the way,” she added, “the star of the show may not end up being the star of the show.”
Mortimer, a character actress, seemed pleased. (In “The Pursuit of Love,” she cast herself as “the Bolter,” the protagonist’s flighty, monogamy-phobic mother.) Bernhardt laid out a couple of rules: vary the stem lengths so that the flowers aren’t at a uniform height, and get rid of leaves, especially ugly ones. “No ugliness,” she said, as she tore a leaf from one of Mortimer’s celosias and hurled it into the bushes. “Or, as my ikebana teacher would say, ‘Sayonara!’ ”
Next: the supporting players. Mortimer added hypericums and peonies, stuffing her pitcher to the hilt. “I may have gone a bit O.T.T.—over the top,” she said.
“Perfection is overrated,” Bernhardt assured her, adding, “I want to suggest that you take a few more leaves off.”
“I guess minimalism is not my strong point, as my TV show will show you,” Mortimer said, with a self-effacing laugh. After trimming some leaves and adding one more peony, she was done. Her arrangement, like “The Pursuit of Love,” was an off-kilter period piece: petticoats and punk. Mortimer thanked her instructor and carried her creation out to the street. “It suffers a little bit from excess,” she said. “But I like that.” ♦