“Her emotions were on no ordinary plane,” Fanny Logan says of her cousin and best friend, Linda Radlett. “She loved or she loathed. She laughed or she cried. She lived in a world of superlatives.” This is an extremely high standard to set for Linda, heroine of the three-part miniseries adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s satirical coming-of-age novel The Pursuit of Love. But by the time Fanny (Emily Beecham), who also serves as our narrator, describes Linda (Lily James) this way, it’s clear that both she and Pursuit live up to all this talk of superlatives.
Emily Mortimer plays a small role throughout as Fanny’s mother, referred to as “the Bolter” because of her habit of constantly running away from her family to find a new man to marry. The irony is that Linda, raised by uptight, wealthy, xenophobic Matthew (Dominic West) and Sadie (Dolly Wells), has turned out to be her generation’s Bolter, while Fanny seems very much happy staying home and living vicariously through her cousin’s many adventures in love and life in the years between the two world wars.
Mortimer’s very funny in her periodic appearances as the Bolter, but her far more important work takes place behind the scenes as writer and director. She has crafted a story that feels simultaneously true to its period and modern, with life and energy exploding off the frame. Between her use of contemporary music (soundtrack cuts include Cat Power, Sleater-Kinney, and Marianne Faithfull, among many others), lovingly detailed tableau shots, and strategically deployed chyrons, Pursuit at times feels like what you would get if you hired Wes Anderson to make a Masterpiece Theatre. And while Mortimer lets supporting players like West (who has rarely been allowed to be this consistently funny onscreen) and Andrew Scott (as Linda’s hedonistic neighbor, Lord Merlin) get big and stylized with their performances, she also does delicate character work with both Linda and Fanny.
James and Beecham each understand their very different assignments. Though Linda is our main character, we see her largely through Fanny’s perspective, so she often exists more as an ideal than a person. Yet James plays her with an irresistible gleam in her eyes, so that even as Linda makes mistake after mistake while living up to her story’s title, it’s hard not to root for her to keep going. Beecham, meanwhile, has the more nuanced and understated role, and consistently finds ways to make Fanny seem to us like an equal partner in the tale, even if she herself would be surprised by the very notion of it.
As Linda bounces around in her romantic life from a spoiled young aristocrat to a smug communist to a charming French playboy, Fanny warns her, “You’ve got to start believing in something other than love!” But whatever skepticism Fanny and Emily Mortimer have in Linda’s various suitors, it’s clear that the most important love story happening is the one between the two cousins, with their opposing temperaments and unwavering devotion to each other. Even when the energy level starts to flag a bit in the series’ concluding hour, Fanny’s concern for Linda, and vice versa, is palpable and winning.
Nancy Mitford wrote two sequel novels, Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred. It remains to be seen whether anyone involved in this (including the BBC, which co-produced this adaptation, and premiered it in the UK earlier this year) is interested in turning those into limited series as well. But this had better be just the first entry in a long directorial career for Emily Mortimer. What a joy The Pursuit of Love is.
Amazon Prime Video premieres all three episodes of The Pursuit of Love on July 30th.