A couple months back, I stumbled upon—and became entranced by—this clip of Andrew Scott (a.k.a. Fleabag’s Hot Priest and future Mr. Ripley) prancing about in black and gold polka dot pajamas. Scott, as the charmingly dissolute Lord Merlin, never cracks a smile, retaining a smoldering pose of bored, disdainful remove as his posse of theatrically costumed artists and hangers-on dance around him to T.Rex’s “Dandy in the Underworld.” Like me—and just about everyone who watched The Pursuit of Love when it premiered in the UK this spring—young Linda Radlett (Lily James), whose dreary coming out ball Lord Merlin and his set are crashing, is smitten.
The scene, from the first episode of the three-part series which premieres on Amazon Prime this week, promises all manner of daffy antics and stylish visual flourishes at Lord Merlin’s manor house, a sort of Toad Hall where Dadaist plays and jazz poetry are performed in the garden. Unfortunately, The Pursuit of Love never quite delivers on the promise of this one electrifying moment. Which is not to say that there aren’t delights to be had in this frothy period piece.
Directed by Emily Mortimer, who also adapted the series from Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel, the series is something akin to Brideshead Revisited by way of Sophia Coppola. It’s the story of the sheltered and frivolous Linda’s single-minded pursuit of romance, as seen through the eyes of her cousin and best friend, the far more sensible Fanny (Emily Beecham). Raised by a tyrannical father (Dominic West, having a blast with every unhinged line) who keeps her and her siblings locked away in the family’s country estate, Linda yearns to break free and experience life—which, to her, means falling in love. Fanny, on the other hand, is determined to be the opposite of her mother, the Bolter (Mortimer, also having a blast devouring the scenery every time she appears on screen), who abandoned her as a child to pursue various lovers around the world. What follows is a fairly standard British interwar dramedy featuring a series of disastrous marriages and affairs (for Linda) and stultifying domestic ennui (for Fanny).
Beecham’s steady, dry as a bone narration throughout strikes exactly the right note of contrast to her costars’ slightly over-the-top performances. James, meanwhile, has the tough job of making the fragile, frequently histrionic Linda someone we can care about as much as Fanny does. And she just about succeeds. But it’s the details that really elevate the series. Mortimer peppers The Pursuit of Love with anachronistic needle drops and pithy captions when introducing the farcical characters that populate Linda and Fanny’s world. (Sadly, Lord Merlin is more or less sidelined for much of the series, appearing occasionally to call Linda on her BS.)
The whole pretty, droll confection is aimed at a predictable tragedy and some underdeveloped platitudes about the roles women find themselves playing, and their lack of choice in the matter. Still, The Pursuit of Love is as frothy and fun as a strawberry Rossini—which is absolutely what you should drink while watching.