Many of the best period dramas are social satires, beautifully disguised. Nancy Mitford’s interwar classic The Pursuit of Love goes further: mirthfully and tragically dismantling the very idea of love among the British upper classes. Relic actor Emily Mortimer writes, directs, produces, and stars in this new BBC adaptation, which feels much more liberated than the regular output of stiff, Austenian scenarios.
We’re between the World Wars, following the lives of the sensibly shy Fanny (Emily Beecham) and her passionately extroverted best friend Linda (Lily James). As teenagers, they discuss their romantic fantasies of bagging the Prince of Wales or the local farmer: their imaginations confined to the family manor, Alconleigh. Once their adolescence reaches adulthood, they pursue more realistic options – but Linda never lets go of her fairytale perceptions of love.
The very English social fears ripple through, but the lavish Jazz Age atmosphere spills with cocktails and parties and a rockin’ soundtrack. Mortimer pursues a more modern, sexy, and freewheeling style: painted with entertaining freeze frames and calligraphic titles, skirting the likeness of a Baz Luhrmann film.
But unlike Luhrmann, Mortimer doesn’t dance enough in that world and creates a scattered pace that arbitrarily brakes and accelerates. Some characters are even left stranded at the side, with little context around them. The series would’ve benefited from another episode, just to dwell in that company for longer and understand them better.
Lily James and Emily Beecham as Linda and Fanny. Photo: BBC/Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited/Robert Viglasky
Lily James (The Dig) plays the fun and flighty Linda, who is, by far, the most open and radiant member of the Radlett family. Fanny narrates her life, dictating Mitford’s funny and delectable prose. Their friendship is the stuff of dreams, an unbreakable bond that endures so many aches and never falters. But Linda doesn't fully appreciate that, choosing instead to ‘aspire to true love, the kind which only comes once in a lifetime and lasts forever’.
These unreasonable aspirations engender relationships with a stuffy conservative (The Crown’s Freddie Fox), a serious socialist (Creation Stories’ James Frecheville), and a Parisian playboy (Call My Agent’s Assaad Bouab). It’s easy to mock Linda, especially considering the grown-up company around her, but you can’t help but fall in love with her childish ideals.
James carries Linda’s anxieties beautifully, keeping a perfectly composed face in front of others but often breaking in their absence. She has a frustrating yet infectious energy, which spreads to her friends and family – even her comically traditional and furiously xenophobic father (brilliantly played by Dominic West).
Andrew Scott as Lord Merlin. Photo: BBC/Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited/Robert Viglasky
James’s sunny limelight is almost stolen by the glorious Andrew Scott, who plays the attractively eccentric Lord Merlin. He’s Linda and Fanny’s first encounter with the bohemian lifestyle, filled with booze and art and creative abandon – releasing the women from the rigor mortis of Radlett living. It's a shame there isn't more of him, as he provides a spirited voice of reason in Linda’s life.
Although these characters come and go quickly, to the series' detriment, you come to love all their vivacious personalities. The Pursuit of Love is a short, sharp and opulent shot of the interwar social scene. It's richly charming, but annoyingly scattered – much like Linda.
The Pursuit of Love airs on Sunday 9 May at 9pm on BBC One.
|What||The Pursuit of Love, BBC One review|
09 May 21 – 09 May 22, ON BBC ONE / iPLAYER
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