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Emily Mortimer's 'The Pursuit of Love' Brings Irreverent New Life to a Classic


Published November 24, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 24, 2021 at 2:34 p.m.

DEFIANT DEBS Beecham and James play cousins with divergent destinies in the new BBC adaptation of a classic novel. - COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS
  • Courtesy Of Amazon Studios
  • DEFIANT DEBS Beecham and James play cousins with divergent destinies in the new BBC adaptation of a classic novel.

To get in the seasonal spirit, I watched a series about a dysfunctional family of British aristocrats who know how to throw a holiday party — if you're up for hunting, awkward dancing and wearing paper crowns to dinner. No, not the royals, but the Radletts of Alconleigh, the fictional focus of Nancy Mitford's 1945 book The Pursuit of Love. Written and directed by Emily Mortimer — best known for her acting roles and her series "Doll & Em" — this three-episode series is the third BBC adaptation of the novel. It was released on Amazon Prime Video earlier this year.

The deal

Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham) was abandoned as an infant by her feckless mother (Mortimer), whom everyone in the family calls "the Bolter." In 1927, teenage Fanny spends the holidays with her beloved cousin Linda Radlett (Lily James), who lives in the countryside with five siblings.

While Fanny is quiet and studious, Linda is a madcap romantic itching to escape the home in which she's been virtually imprisoned by her archconservative father (Dominic West), who doesn't believe in education for women. When she does escape, however, her new life isn't all it's cracked up to be.

We follow Linda and Fanny from the flapper era to the London Blitz — through marriages, affairs, babies, ideological conversions and family crises. Throughout, their story poses a time-honored question: Which type of person is happier, a restless "bolter" or a stable "sticker"?

Will you like it?

Perhaps the above question should be rephrased as "Which type of woman is happier?" because feminism is front and center in Mortimer's adaptation. With her cry of "Love is my religion!" Linda defies the destiny laid out for her as a daughter of the aristocracy: marriage to a man like her father, followed by childbearing in obscurity.

Fanny gives her cousin the novels of Virginia Woolf in an effort to expand her horizons. But Linda prefers to learn by doing — which, for her, means repeatedly falling in and out of love. In the process, she becomes a "fallen woman" — but also, debatably, a liberated woman, exploring her potential and limits in a distinctly modern manner. Fanny, meanwhile, leads a more conventional life, but not an unreflective one, as she continually compares herself with Linda and questions her own role.

It's a familiar story, but Mortimer's stylized approach ensures that it's not a stale or a stodgy one. There's some Wes Anderson DNA in this Mitford adaptation, and "The Pursuit of Love" also shows the influence of the freewheeling, postmodern approach to period drama that made The Favourite a hit.

Wry captions pop up to introduce us to the large cast of quirky characters. And, starting with the appearance of the bohemian Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott, aka the "hot priest" from "Fleabag"), those characters engage in surreal dance interludes set to music that postdates them. Bryan Ferry, New Order, T. Rex and Nina Simone alternate with classical selections on the soundtrack.

Purists may not welcome these anachronisms or the occasional cartoonishness of the characterizations. A scene in which Linda's first husband meets her soon-to-be second husband basically consists of the former declaring, "I'm a fascist!" and the latter riposting, "Well, I prefer Karl Marx!"

The actors breathe life into these caricatures of England's elite, however. Many supporting players make indelible comic impressions, such as the aforementioned Scott and John Heffernan as the dyspeptic Davey. Even West brings humanity to tyrannical Uncle Matthew.

With her limited repertoire of expressions, James has often seemed miscast. But her childish pouts and look-at-me smiles are a good fit for Linda, a daddy's girl who's still figuring out how to grow up. No mere wallflower, Beecham brings a sly wistfulness to Fanny. And they both look smashing in Sinéad Kidao's costumes, which are in themselves sufficient reason to watch.

It's easy to get caught up in the sumptuous surfaces of "The Pursuit of Love" — the sparkly flapper dresses, the lovingly detailed family holiday tableaux, the jewel-toned lighting of a scene in a Parisian boîte. Like "The Queen's Gambit," Mortimer's series works as pure escapism.

But it has a serious side, too, which we glimpse as Linda struggles to find meaning in her life by aiding refugees of the Spanish Civil War. Can the pursuit of love ever yield happiness, or is it a pursuit with no end? "Bolting" is one logical response to a misogynist society, the story suggests, but a rebellion like Linda's may not stick.

If you like this, try...

"Love in a Cold Climate" (three episodes, 2001; Passionflix, BritBox): In this previous BBC adaptation of The Pursuit of Love and its sequel, directed by Tom Hooper, Rosamund Pike plays Fanny. Judi Dench appeared in a still earlier 1980 version.

"Firefly Lane" (10 episodes, 2021; Netflix): Stories of female friendship through the decades are a staple of fiction. For a modern American version, try this cheesy but fun adaptation of Kristin Hannah's best seller, starring Katherine Heigl as the wild friend and Sarah Chalke as the homebody friend.

I Capture the Castle (2003; Kanopy, Tubi, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Pluto TV, rentable): Or perhaps you seek another period piece about an eccentric English family living in a run-down castle? This enjoyable adaptation of Dodie Smith's 1948 cult novel should fit the bill.