Review: ‘The Pursuit of Love’ Against All Odds
When you’re making a television show out of a 76-year-old best seller — in this case, a beloved comic novel subject over the years to charges of …
When you’re making a television show out of a 76-year-old best seller — in this case, a beloved comic novel subject over the years to charges of superficiality — the last thing you might worry about is ending up with something safer and more conventional than the original. But here we have “The Pursuit of Love,” a three-hour BBC mini-series arriving Friday on Amazon Prime Video.
Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel (same title), which sold a blockbusting 200,000 copies in its first year, fictionalized and satirized the country life of her talented, notoriously eccentric family at its Cotswolds estate. At the story’s center was the unconditional if not always harmonious friendship of Fanny Logan, the somewhat ordinary cousin who served as narrator, and Linda Radlett, the family’s beautiful and willful wild child, whose misadventures as a wife and mistress supply much of the book’s action.
The virtues of the novel, especially in its early chapters, when Fanny and Linda are still children, are its briskness and the poker-faced savagery of its humor, as Fanny lovingly but mercilessly details the foibles of the Radletts: Uncle Matthew the patriarch, spewing xenophobia and railing against the education of girls; young Jassy, modeled on Nancy’s sister Jessica, who obsessively saves her pennies so that she can eventually run away; Fanny’s mother, known only as the Bolter because she flees one husband after another. The satire is observational rather than psychological — Mitford skewers people, deftly and economically, through their own words and actions. There’s a lot of silliness on display, but Fanny’s telling of it is strictly no-nonsense.
Adapting the book for the screen would seem to require finding an analogue for that voice and style. The actress Emily Mortimer, in her first project as a director and her second as a writer (after the Hollywood buddy comedy “Doll & Em”), achieves that goal fitfully, largely through the appealing performances of her two leads, Emily Beecham (as Fanny) and especially Lily James, who is an ideal match for the vibrant, vulnerable, terminally romantic Linda. Mortimer’s production is also luxurious in the departments of production design (Cristina Casali) and cinematography (Zac Nicholson). Its evocation of interwar 1930s Britain, alternately country-cozy and city-sybaritic, is straight-up eye candy.
Mortimer generally follows the novel’s plot and incorporates a lot of its words directly into Fanny’s narration, and her “Pursuit of Love” is better the closer it sticks to the book. Unfortunately, when she strays from it, expanding on Mitford’s story, she has mostly bad ideas.
Her changes, particularly her elaboration of Fanny and Linda’s relationship, push the show in more literal, more lugubrious and, fatally, more melodramatic directions. The tragedy of Linda’s misbegotten attempts at love no longer slips in through the seams of the narrative. Things that were implicit and largely unjudged in the book, filtered through layers of stiff-upper-lip irony — Fanny’s self-pity, Linda’s obliviousness — are now foregrounded and, for the most part, rendered banal, with “Beaches”-level platitudes and sentimentality. Mortimer casts herself as the Bolter, in a role whose expansion has no obvious point beyond increasing our sympathy for Fanny.
Other additions to the story seem designed to make the male characters more odious — Uncle Matthew more of a violent ogre, Fanny’s husband, Alfred, more of a domineering prig. Allied with these is an exaggerated sense of the childhood country home, Alconleigh, as a prison to be escaped.
You could see these changes as part of a more contemporary, feminist reading. But they just contribute to a moralism that misses the tone of the book. Mitford could be absolutely judgmental when it came to taste and manners, but she was forgiving, if a bit sad, when it came to her characters’ life choices.
Along with James and Beecham, those who fare well in the production include Dominic West, who makes Uncle Matthew’s vein-popping tirades amusing, and Freddie Fox, who in a few scenes as Linda’s first husband, Tony, justifies her instant, ill-fated attraction to him.
Andrew Scott, who plays the Radletts’ bohemian neighbor, Lord Merlin, overcomes Mortimer’s directorial choices — like staging his first appearance as an absurd art-deco harlequinade — and gives an affecting performance as Linda’s highly critical but devoted mentor. With his imperious gestures and ornamental expressions of disgust, he gets what Mortimer doesn’t: that when you’re adapting something that consists of a brilliant, carefully composed surface, there’s no need to pull it back and try to show us what’s beneath.