This week brings Amazon's adaptation of Nancy Mitford's 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love, centering on two British cousins of marrying age in the period between World Wars. This era should be familiar to the show's star, Lily James, as she got her big break playing Lady Rose on Downton Abbey. And just like that show was an upstairs/downstairs look at Edwardian England as the march of time made its customs irrelevant, The Pursuit of Love injects its own modern sensibilities into a story that seems like it should be a period romance but is instead rather unromantic and unprecious about the age in which it takes place.
James plays Linda Radlett, heedless daughter of a society family in pre-World War II England. Deeply romantic and intensely emotional, Linda is best pals with her cousin, Fanny (Emily Beecham), through whom the story is told. Fanny's mother is so unreliable and prone to taking off that she's referred to as "The Bolter," leaving her daughter to be raised by her aunt Emily (Annabel Mullion) and Linda's parents (Dominic West and Dolly Wells). In her brief appearances, Fanny's mother is played by Emily Mortimer, who also writes and directs this three-part miniseries adaptation. Mortimer's guiding hand resists traditional costume drama at every turn, injecting a modern soundtrack that includes New Order and Sleater-Kinney, as well as a pronounced un-stuffiness .
Mortimer has long been a top-notch actress for whom Hollywood has often struggled to find good roles. She and Wells co-created the HBO series Doll & Em in 2014, a low-key comedy about the entertainment industry. This kind of literary adaptation is another thing altogether, and while it doesn't always come together, Mortime's exciting creative instincts are very much on display. The closest comparison I can think of is Whit Stillman's 2016 Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, which satisfied its period requirements while also traipsing through all of Stillman's gossipy, status-obsessed preoccupations and sparkling dialogue.
The weak link in The Pursuit of Love, unfortunately, is James, who has trouble reading young enough to play the romantically naïve Linda in a way that doesn't suggest psychosis. She's a compelling actress, but here she struggles to make Linda's impetuousness work. As a result, Linda and Fanny's closer-than-close, two-girls-against-the-world vibe has some trouble getting off the ground.
Happily the same can't be said of the rest of the cast. Dominic West seems to be having a lot of fun playing the boisterously hateful Uncle Matthew, whose disregard for children and educated women affixes a unfortunate Venn diagram right over Fanny's head. John Heffernan plays Davey, Aunt Emily's new husband who is a welcome respite from Matthew's bellowing. Freddie Fox is quite fetching as a young Tory who catches Linda eye, and Matthew's ire for being of German descent. But by far the series' most fun is had with Andrew Scott's Lord Merlin, a neighbor of Linda's family whose worldliness is introduced in the first episode with a kind of pansexual flair that looks like it was pulled right out of Velvet Goldmine. Scott, who won a huge swath of fans as Fleabag's hot priest, not only gives the film a jolt of modernity and sexual ambiguousness, he also, as every queer-coded character has since the beginning of time, serves as a fount of worldly perspective for our two girls.
As the series goes on, it tracks a path familiar to anyone who's watched these kind of period stories. The march of time brings with it change and social upheaval. Early marriages entered into in haste fall away to more scandalous unions. Linda's wild romantic fantasies lead her to Paris and Communist ideologies with equal abandon. Her close bond with Fanny becomes strained and Fanny pushes back against the notion that young women are for marrying and not for intellectual pursuits. It's a musty dynamic, to be sure, but Beecham carries it off quite well. For Linda and Fanny, "The Pursuit of Love" becomes two very different things. The story's perspective on Linda's romantic notions is a perpetual arched eyebrow, while Fanny's pursuit isn't the love that will sweep her off her feet at all.
As a period romance, The Pursuit of Love succeeds more as a character drama. And on balance, it's got the cast to carry it off. More than anything else, it leaves me wanting to see Emily Mortimer put her temporally malleable, maturely emotional spin on any number of stories in the future. Here's hoping she does.
All three episodes of The Pursuit of Love drop on Amazon Prime Video Friday July 30th.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.