It would be easy to dismiss The Pursuit of Love as another corset and lace drama, full of flimsy ladies and strict social etiquette.
Well, there are no repulsive butlers or even eavesdropping on the corner of the room.
The pursuit of love is crackling from life and infected with an infectious, irrepressible spirit that Nancy Mitford, from whose book it has been adapted, would definitely approve.
Written and directed by actor Emily Mortimer, over three episodes, we are invited into the dramatic world of Linda Radlett (Lily James), a young woman who is completely surprised by the idea of great, sweeping romantic love.
Linda is described by her cousin Fanny (Emily Beecham) as someone who “loved or despised, laughed or cried, living in a world of superlatives”. Linda feels everything, and she feels everything strongly.
But adventures and romance are off-limits. She and her siblings are confined to their family’s estate by their xenophobic father Matthew (Dominic West), a bombastic man who thinks the worst fate for a woman’s survival is education, and who literally swipes at breakfast.
Mounted in the dining room, the weapon he used to assassinate Germans in WWI is displayed to emphasize Matthew’s deep distrust of foreigners.
Although they are opposites in temperament, Linda and Fanny are best friends, with the wiser, educated girl often caught up in the exploits of her impulsive cousin. Fanny’s own mother, simply referred to as The Bolter (Mortimer), is famous for passing people around at a fast pace, a reputation that Fanny has no desire to emulate.
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In the years before WWI, there was no place for women in upper-class English society to be individualists. But despite the best efforts of the “somewhat expected” crowd, Linda is precisely that, a lively, uncompromising individualist whose desires and whims are never tempered.
It’s a character that could have been a caricature, a naive, unintentional brat who leaves chaos in her throat. But in the hands of James and Mortimer, drawn from Mitford’s writing, Linda is bright, complex, and full of empathy.
James can really break your heart with a single sore look.
All the characters are bigger than life, including Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott), the bon vivant neighbor of the Radletts who is a patron of the artistic and bohemian Bright Young Things, and whose whippets prefer whiskey.
But they are all balanced by Fanny’s basic story, and it’s through Fanny’s eyes that we experience this wonderful world, so it never feels like The pursuit of love tips in farce.
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Mortimer had previously co-written HBO series Doll & Em (with Dolly Wells, who has a small role here as Linda’s mother), but this is her directing debut. She has a confidence in the tone of the miniseries, and a clear, deep love for these characters that were created all those years ago by one of the non-fascist Mitford sisters.
The pursuit of love sweeps along at a cracking pace – scenes have often edited quickly – while the soundtrack is as likely to have Marianne Faithfull and Bryan Ferry as Strauss and Rossini, making the whole affair that sad cocktail of youth, rebellion and vitality.
In that sense, there are memories of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Tony McNamara’s The big one, two productions from the period that you would never condemn as stodgy as staid.
It’s a very appealing, very intoxicating series.
The Pursuit of Love is on Amazon Prime Video starting Friday, July 30th
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