Spoilers are ahead. When we meet a pregnant Linda Radlett (Lily James) in the opening moments of the new Amazon Prime Video mini-series, The Pursuit of Love, she's in a proudly precarious position. She’s sunbathing nearly nude, only a fur coat and newspaper cover her naughty bits, on the rooftop of her flat, which is promptly bombed in a WWII air raid. She sees this as a minor inconvenience, nothing more, despite the fact that her entire apartment building just crumbled to the ground. Her cousin Fanny (Emily Beecham), soon explains that Linda is a “wild and nervous creature full of passion and longing” whose life has been full of near-death experiences caused by everything from wild horses to her child-hating father to utter heartbreak.
It’s hard not to get caught up in writer and director Emily Mortimer’s delightfully romantic adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel of the same name, which looks at the gloriously messy lives and loves of Linda and Fanny. However, there was one thing I couldn’t quite ignore: The initial discomfort of watching James and Dominic West play father and daughter.
It has nothing to do with their performances in the modernized satire that comes complete with 1940s via Studio 54 costumes and a Marie Antoinette-esque soundtrack; James is charmingly naive as the Rapunzel-like dreamer, while West is both hilarious and infuriating as the sexist and nationalist patriarch. Yet, anytime they share the screen, as unfair as it may be, I can’t ignore the details of their complicated relationship offscreen.
While filming The Pursuit of Love in October 2020, West and James were caught kissing and holding hands in Rome. The rather intimate snapshots caused a stir being that West is married to Catherine Fitzgerald — and has been for the last decade. The story only got more bizarre when, days after the images of West and James hit the internet, the still-married couple posed for the paparazzi outside their English home. The smiling duo also offered up a handwritten note that let the world know, “Our marriage is strong and we’re very much still together. Thank you.”
While not a denial per se, it did offer polite confirmation that their relationship status is not as complicated as one may have assumed. But when The Pursuit of Love premiered on the BBC in May, the viral photos became a topic of conversation once again. People now wanted to hear James’ side of the story. “Ach, I’m not really willing to talk about that,” she told The Guardian. “There is a lot to say, but not now, I’m afraid.”
That same month she would go on to explain that she felt a kinship with Linda who follows her heart, sometimes to her own detriment. “The choices she makes at times feel harsh and brutal but I instinctively feel I understand her and love her deeply,” she told Hello! Magazine. “I recognize a lot of myself in her."
I understand James’ fear of telling her truth knowing how harshly we judge the perceived “other woman” in an alleged affair. It didn’t help that the mini-series of which she is the out and out star became an unwitting accessory to whatever she and West were doing in Rome, which really is none of our business. The show became inextricably linked with those photos, which is rather unfair knowing how common it is for co-stars to take their on screen romances offscreen. In fact, it can help a movie or TV show’s buzz to have audiences watching for the exact moment when the co-stars fell in love. (Hello, Netflix’s Sex/Life.) Honestly, who among us hasn’t come out of a movie discussing the chemistry or lack thereof between co-stars who are rumored to be dating? (Cough, A Star Is Born, cough.)
Yet when the rumored relationship is between two actors playing familial roles — brothers and sisters, parent and child — I find it rather distracting. Sure, they’re not really related, but the knowledge of their extracurricular lives tends to muddy the waters. For instance, in a completely innocent moment in which West helps James knot her fox hunting tie, I cringed a little. In another scene in which West gets riled up over James’s unsuitable suitor, I couldn’t help but read his reaction as more jealous boyfriend than concerned father. Possibly, because too many shows would have cast him as her love interest despite their 20-year age difference.
Perhaps, it’s all in my head, a side-effect of spending so much time online. It’s there we get a peek behind the curtain of actors’ personal lives thanks to their Instagrams, but also see the things they don’t want us to. The things the paparazzi catch. Maybe my penchant for celebrity gossip has hardened me to Hollywood’s magic spell. You know, the one that allows viewers to believe complete strangers when they act like big happy families — or, in The Pursuit Of Love’s case, not so happy — no matter their relationship status.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to dig too deep in my psyche to understand my aversion to West playing James’s dad since they share very little screen time. After the first episode, he is mostly out of sight, and their alleged affair is out of mind, which is a good thing, since The Pursuit of Love is not about fathers and daughters, but the bonds of female friendship.
It’s a coming of age story about two young women who aspire to find the truest of loves, “the kind that only comes once in a lifetime and lasts forever,” as Fanny explains. To do that, you have to give yourself over to passion, a fickle beast that may lead you to do things that others may question or whisper about. That may even include taking part in a brief affair with someone you work with.