Introducing The Gloriously Messy Women Of The Pursuit Of Love

Photo: courtesy of Amazon Studios.
The first scene of The Pursuit of Love made me immediately reach for my phone: A very pregnant Linda Radlett (Lily James) strokes her naked belly, clad only a fur coat, as she sunbathes on the roof of her London townhouse. Her only company? A tiny French bulldog named Plan Plan. Tired, Linda climbs down the ladder leading into her bedroom for a nap. But no sooner has she shut her eyes than a World War II bomb whizzes through her ceiling, plunging her down to the ground floor, where she emerges, suitcase in hand and with a smile. 
It’s the kind of over-the-top, madcap moment that’s made to be screeched about in group chats (or in my case, to colleagues on Slack). And Emily Mortimer’s adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s 1945 satirical novel about the British upper class is absolutely full of them. There’s the moment Andrew Scott (trading in his Hot Priest persona from Fleabag for an aristocrat full of artistic ennui as Lord Merlin) arrives at a staid family party in polka-dot silk pajamas and an entourage of dancers to the tune of T. Rex’s “Dandy In The Underworld.” (The first of many anachronistic songs.) Or, when Linda’s father, Lord Alconleigh (Dominic West) stands outside his gigantic, somewhat crumbly mansion and cracks bullwhips in his bathrobe.
We’re introduced to this band of colorful characters through the eyes of Fanny (Emily Beecham), Linda’s cousin and best friend. Terrified of turning into her mother (Mortimer), nicknamed “The Bolter” because of the consistently frantic way she leaves her romantic and familial relationships, Fanny is the tempering force in Linda’s life. Where the latter is carefree and vivacious, ready to pursue love at any cost and take what she wants with both hands, the former is cautious, and conscious of the needs of others. Understandably, Fanny is in awe of her cousin, even as she sees the toll her decisions take on herself and those around her. Growing up in between two World Wars, their relationship grows – together and apart — against the backdrop of some of history’s most turbulent times
Like Fanny, Mortimer gravitated towards Linda’s allure, creating a story that stresses the very messy feelings around women navigating their desires against what’s expected of them.“That chic and feminine fuck you to everything is beguiling, so punk rock,” she told Refinery29 ahead of The Pursuit of Love’s July 30 premiere on Amazon Prime Video. “I wish I could be like that. But I fear I’m a bit too much of a Fanny — a natural pleaser.”
But every Fanny needs a Linda, as Mortimer found out as she embarked on this Mitfordian journey. James was already loosely attached to the project when Mortimer was asked to write a script adapting Mitford’s book. Then came the hunt for the right director. 
“I had written a very bossy script,” Mortimer said. “I made it very clear how the camera was going to be, and what music was going to be there and everything. It would have been quite difficult for anyone else to come in and I would probably have been quite controlling about the whole thing.” And yet, it didn’t occur to her to raise her hand, until James pointed out the obvious. 
“It was she who really got me the job as the director,” Mortimer said. “I do feel so beyond grateful to her and blown away by the fact that this young woman just gave me, this older woman, this amazing opportunity, and believed in me. [At her age,] I can’t imagine having A) the courage to do and say that, and B) having anyone listen to me. I’ll never forget it. It’s really one of the most defining moments of my life. I will walk through that door, but thank you Lily. I could never have done that otherwise.”
Photo: courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Likewise though, every Linda needs a Fanny to tell them when they’ve gone too far. Mortimer doesn’t shy away from some of its more unpleasant aspects of her characters, chief among which is Linda’s fraught attitude towards motherhood. 
The relationship between Linda and Fanny first fractures after the former marries her first husband, Tony (Freddie Fox) — a rich man with Fascist leanings. They have a child, Moira, whom Linda viscerally and somewhat inexplicably dislikes, much to Fanny’s dismay. Even more surprisingly though, the relationship between mother and child is never really redeemed. Moira is largely forgotten as Linda moves through the other men in her life, traveling to Spain with her second husband (a Communist, this time) and then to France, where she meets the love of her life, the Duc de Sauveterre (Assaad Bouab, aka Hisham from Call My Agent). 
“I was asked by some of the people involved in the project to get rid of the bit where [Linda] rejects her child because it wouldn’t be palatable,” Mortimer said. “And I was like, ‘No that’s the whole point!’ This is a taboo issue, nobody talks about this, even now. If someone is a bad mother they are a bad person full stop. It was really important to me that they were shown, warts and all, and that there were no apologies made for the characters. I wasn’t trying to make them likeable.”
Still, there is an incredible amount of privilege at play here, both in the story told on the page and on the screen, and in Mitford’s own backstory. The eldest of six sisters, she was very much an insider in the British upper class she so deftly mocked in her writing. 
Mortimer was conscious of this as she embarked on this journey, asking herself: “Does the world really need another thing in a big posh house with people in period costumes in the English countryside?” The answer is up for debate, but Mortimer’s vision for the genre certainly makes hers stand out. 
And once you’re done watching, there’s more than enough behind-the-scenes drama to keep you well-fed and satiated. Yes, there’s the whole scandal surrounding James’ rumored affair with West — a move that’s so Linda, it could have been planned by Nancy Mitford herself. But peel back another layer, and you get to the absolutely unbelievable history of the Mitford sisters themselves. Three of them became Nazis — Diana famously ran off with Sir Oswald Mosely, head of the British Union of Fascists, while Unity, a personal friend of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 — another (Jessica) a devoted Communist. Deborah, the youngest, married a Duke and became — I kid you not — a chicken devotee. Nancy, of course, wrote several acclaimed novels. Finally, Pamela — denounced by Nancy to British authorities as an anti-Semite during the war —  lived a comparatively quietly life in the country with her lover, Italian horsewoman Giuditta Tomasi.

All this to say, I think we need at least one more show about rich British people in costumes — and I know exactly who should direct it.

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