The Favourite did what Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette failed to do—inspire a revolution in period piece aesthetics. Since Yorgos Lanthimos’ oddball royal court dramedy swept the Oscars, Apple TV+’s Dickinson, Hulu’s The Great, Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women have all found success in injecting contemporary style and a modern sensibility into the standard historical drama template. And for its first episode, at least, Amazon Prime Video’s interwar drama The Pursuit Of Love follows suit. When young British cousins Linda Radlett (Lily James) and Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham) meet their neighbor Lord Merlin (Fleabag’s Andrew Scott), the eccentric aristocrat is introduced in a fantasy sequence that channels ballroom culture by way of glam rock. Set to T. Rex’s “Dandy In The Underworld,” the glitter-filled scene filters a late 1920s experience through a distinctly modern visual language in order to make this meeting of minds feel as alive as it would have to its characters. It’s an exhilarating mix of style and substance.
It’s just a shame the rest of the show can’t keep up that level of verve. After the premiere launches the series with visual flair and a unique point of view, the next two episodes slowly devolve into more standard period piece fare. Despite its initial promise of quirky innovation, The Pursuit Of Love is mostly anchored by the familiar building blocks of a BBC co-production: sumptuous costuming, gorgeous cinematography, and strong performances. Based on Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel of the same name, the show can only intermittently keep its spark of originality alive. The Pursuit Of Love often struggles to blend its kitschy comedic sensibilities with its more dramatic beats—although it’s a joy to watch when it does.
Set between 1927 and 1941, The Pursuit Of Love centers on the divergent experiences of its two female leads. Plain, pragmatic Fanny (Beecham) was given a good education but has a natural timidity and a desire not to rock the boat that sets her on the path towards a conventional life of mid-20th-century womanhood. Linda (James), meanwhile, is a beautiful, free-spirited rebel who “lives in a world of superlatives.” Her stern father (Dominic West, hilarious and terrifying) believes women shouldn’t be educated and raises his children in what amounts to a glamorous prison at their wealthy country estate. That leaves Linda both woefully naïve and desperate to escape, which sets her on a series of complicated romantic entanglements that come to define her tragicomic life. Love may be her religion, but she’s worshipping at a fickle altar.
The three-episode series is adapted and directed by Emily Mortimer, who also has a small role as Fanny’s mother “The Bolter,” the responsibility-averse serial monogamist that Fanny and Linda define their lives against. Mortimer zeroes in on the “either/or” limitations put on upper class women in this era: They can be dutiful wives and mothers with social respectability but not a whole lot of fun or freedom (“the stickers”). Or they can put their own needs before that of their spouses and children, carving out a sense of independence but losing their social respect in the process (“the bolters”). Fanny and Linda’s friendship is defined by the way they alternately fear and crave what the other has. As in her previous series, Doll & Em, Mortimer is interested in complex relationships between women. Linda and Fanny share both an aspirational intimacy and a toxic co-dependency, which Mortimer allows to ebb and flow in realistic and compelling ways.
The main problem with The Pursuit Of Love is that it very much feels like a novel condensed into a limited series form—not least of all because of Fanny’s near-incessant narration throughout the series. The focused first episode gives way to a jam-packed second installment that weaves its way across England before hopping to 1930s Hollywood, a refugee camp at the border of the Spanish War, and eventually Gay Paree. The supporting characters are thinly sketched, while the relationship between Fanny and Linda battles for screen time with Linda’s various romantic conquests. The Pursuit Of Love either needed more episodes to explore its decade-long story or Mortimer needed to be a little more judicious in what she cut from the source material.
It doesn’t help that Linda is like a cross between Downton Abbey’s Lady Rose and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’s Donna Sheridan, with a dash of War And Peace’s Natasha Rostova. This isn’t just a part James could play in her sleep, but one she basically already has. Though James effortlessly zings between flirtatious fun and deep melancholy, she’s missing a spark of freshness as this “Bright Young Thing,” especially when she has to spend the entire first episode playing a teenager. It’s yet another element of familiarity that weighs down The Pursuit Of Love. While the show’s focus on female friendship and feminist themes is appreciable, it’s not all that radical to see a British period piece center on relationships between beautiful, upper class white women—as much of James’ own career can attest.
Instead, the most relevant themes that emerge from The Pursuit Of Love are about what it’s like to live at a time when it feels like the world is about to end. With war in Europe imminent, Linda initially tries to find purpose in communism only to eventually bury herself in a frivolous life of shopping and luxury instead. “She was possessed by a calm and happy fatalism,” Fanny explains in voiceover as Linda meets the rise of fascism by purchasing yet another new outfit. It’s not entirely unlike the way we must all figure out how to cope in the current face of climate change, a global pandemic, and yet another rise in fascism. Like the glam rock montages and wry Wes Anderson-inspired cutaways, Linda’s glamorous nihilism adds a spiky edge that occasionally jazzes up The Pursuit Of Love’s classic period piece formula with something new.