There’s a scene in The Pursuit of Love when Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham), a well-rounded yet reserved young woman, is walking with her uncle by marriage, Davey (John Heffernan), as they discuss her cousin and best friend, the beautiful Linda Radlett (Lily James), who has few interests in life beyond men and the occasional cute animal:
Davey: “Poor Linda. She has an intensely romantic character which is fatal for a woman. And also what makes her so completely irresistible. Fortunately, most women are madly matter-of-fact. Otherwise, the world could hardly carry on.”
Fanny: “What am I, Davey?”
Davey: “You’re you, Fanny. You’ll be alright.”
Like a small moon unable to resist the gravitational pull of an adjacent planet, Fanny’s existence has orbited around Linda and her pouting theatrics since childhood. Despite Fanny’s intelligence and wit, Linda, with her charm and looks, wins over nearly everyone she comes across. Love is her raison d’être and every single one of her life choices follows suit. Set between the interwar period in (mostly) England, the three-part limited series marks the directorial debut of actor Emily Mortimer, who also took it upon herself to adapt it from Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel of the same name. Narrated by Fanny, she proceeds to inform viewers how she grew up spending her holidays at Alconleigh, the Radlett family’s manor. Though ruled over with an iron-fist by the brutish pater familias, Matthew (Dominic West), the home is filled with cheerful gatherings of tea in front of the fireplace—proudly hung above the mantel is the entrenching tool that Matthew used to kill a number of enemy combatants during World War I, dried blood and hair strands still clinging to the business end—and cozy cupboards that also operate as laughter-filled clubhouses.
Throughout their adolescence, Linda, with Fanny in tow, run along champing at the bit to ride full speed into adulthood. Linda especially, with her idealization of love, which has more than a little to do with her wish to get out from beneath Matthew’s fearsome and watchful eye. Her knowledge of the world is entirely absent, the result of her father’s insistence that young women should not be educated, leaving Linda a lovely, but essentially empty, vessel. When the schooled Fanny sniffs, “Is life only about love?” Linda rips Fanny’s copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando out of her hands and hurls it out the closest open window as she defiantly yells, “Yes!” When they at last begin to cross the threshold into the world of adulthood, via the traditional coming-out ball, Linda finally meets the first of what will be multiple suitors, Tony Kroesig (Freddie Fox). Fanny watches the pair dance alluringly on the ballroom floor, her face slightly grief-stricken with the knowledge that her closest companion is on the verge of leaving her behind. Yet when her long-dreamed-of wedding day finally arrives, it is Linda who looks upon Fanny in grief, having only now come to the realization that the price for growing up is childhood coming to an end.
Beecham and James are a wonderful pairing, a vital thing as it’s Fanny and Linda’s love story that has to command the most emotional investment in order for the story to be a success. One may be inclined to deem Fanny as the “mature” one, but much of that has to do with the fact that she follows societal expectations, namely, being married and attending to her children. What’s more, Fanny is quite aware of this and occasionally permits herself to fantasize about sauntering in Paris in gifted furs a lá Linda. As interesting as Linda’s life path is with her whirlwind romances and Gatsby-esque party montages, watching Fanny quietly wrestle with the idea that perhaps she’s played it too safe is equally as compelling. James may have the flashier performance, but Beecham does some deeply nuanced work that’s worthy of recognition.
As far as entertaining performances go, it is almost certain that no one is having more fun than Mortimer herself, who pulls triple duty here by portraying Fanny’s absent mother known as “The Bolter.” Having earned that nickname due to her tendency to abscond with whatever lover captures her fancy at any given time, The Bolter has been in and out of Fanny’s life since she was a baby. Left to be raised with her Aunt Emily (Annabel Mullion), it’s little wonder that Fanny’s devotion to maintaining a life of stability is so resolute. It also informs her judgment of Linda, especially as clear parallels between her and The Bolter emerge. Mortimer plays her with glee, for as much as The Bolter may be worthy of judgment, the ease with which she shrugs off any sort of shame whatsoever leaves you wanting more of her.
West is in full rousing gear here as the xenophobic, misogynistic Matthew, his voice at a constant bellow as though he is unwilling to allow his words to go unheard by anyone in earshot. His abusive nature is almost comically theatrical much of the time (his favorite holiday pastime is hunting his children on horseback with the aid of baying bloodhounds). As Fanny keenly observes, “had the Radlett’s been poor, he, no doubt, would have been sent to prison for beating and refusing to educate them.” The fact that West is able to give the man the slightest bit of likeability is evidence of the actor’s undeniably roguish charm. Though there is absolutely no one more charming and magnetic than Andrew Scott, who makes the splashiest of entrances as the dandy Lord Merlin, oozing that utterly effortless yet sophisticated sex appeal that he’s become famous for. Of course, there are also the men in Linda’s carousel of lovers, such as Fabrice de Sauveterre (Assaad Bouab) who is so debonair that someone should really alert the casting director for Bridgerton. I must say, however, that while these men bring a lot to the table, I do wish we could have spent a bit more time with the other women in the series, especially Sadie, Linda’s mother, played by Dolly Wells (mostly because there can never be too much Dolly Wells).
Viewers may be initially attracted to the spritely styling of the first episode, but it’s in the warmer back half that I found myself falling in love with the story, especially as historical events come into play. It’s not perfect; the lessons on feminism launched at the very end of the third act feels tacked on, like a silk flower hastily attached to the lapel of a completed designer suit. It’s pretty enough, but rather unnecessary considering that these spoken points were so apparent over the course of the series. But the script is largely excellent, thanks to Mortimer, whose affection for the source material shines through. There’s enough relatable themes here—the challenges of trying to cope with being friends with the “pretty” one, watching someone adapt their entire personality to whomever they’re seeing at any given time, and so on—that most viewers will likely enjoy this refreshing take on love and drama in the 20th century.
The Pursuit of Love is available to stream on Amazon.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t wishing she could pet Assaad Bouab’s fantastic beard and mustache, she can be found on Twitter here.
Header Image Source: Amazon Studios