There’s something jaunty and pacey about Nancy Mitford’s “The Pursuit of Love,” and Emily Mortimer’s adaptation of the 1945 novel captures that rhythm perfectly. The three-part miniseries jumps into the story, with its eccentric characters and its twisted old-money mores, and it lunges forward with all the chaotic gusto of its heroine, Linda Radlett (Lily James). Mortimer, who wrote and directed, doesn’t spend time introducing and explaining the world of the Radlett family of Alconleigh; she throws us into the mix of oddballs and their curious habits, not least of all Dominic West’s intolerant, immovable Uncle Matthew Radlett, who hates all foreigners and loves to crack the whip, literally and figuratively.
And it all works beautifully, even as Mortimer fills in the soundtrack not only with the expected classical pieces, but with the likes of T. Rex, Nina Simone, Marianne Faithfull, Joan Armatrading, and Sleater-Kinney, whose “Modern Girl” fits perfectly. The miniseries is simultaneously loyal to the book and willing to incorporate flourishes that echo the modern instincts of some of the characters, most notably Linda, who is hungry for meaning, independence, and real love after obligingly finding a rich but insufferable husband. The music, and the contemporary tone it engenders, also suit one of the show’s best characters, Andrew Scott’s Lord Merlin, the impossibly avant-garde neighbor who schools young Linda in her rejection of convention.
He also dyes his pigeons. “They love it,” he says. “Makes them so pretty for each other.”
The narrator of the story is Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham), who is as plain and willing to settle for an ordinary life as Linda, her cousin and best friend, is not. Fanny lives part time with the Radletts (who are modeled after Mitford’s family), including Linda’s many siblings, all of whom Uncle Matthew insists on homeschooling. The children have secret meetings in a linen closet, where they discuss who is part of their club, the Hons, and who definitely is an anti-Hon. Fanny and Linda finally come out into society together, after which their paths differ and intermittently intertwine, as Linda becomes less moored. World War II is coming, and with it new temptations for the ravenous Linda. Hunger, to paraphrase Sleater-Kinney, makes her a modern girl.
In a less satirical narrative, Fanny would be tragic. Her mother has abandoned her to her aunts, and she has been nicknamed The Bolter for her need to run away — not just from motherhood but from a long line of men. Fanny settles for an academic husband, whose dry detachment is even more pronounced in the show than in the book, and in whom the risk-loving Bolter has no interest. Mortimer is both cruel and amusing as The Bolter, and she and Scott, both playing nonconformists with great brio, walk away with all of their scenes. “The Pursuit of Love” isn’t trying to break our hearts or appeal to our compassion; it’s amusing, charming, and focused, like so many classics, on a sense of the corners in which society forces women. As wonderfully specific as these characters are, they are serving broader points about a claustrophobic milieu.
Linda is a complex character, and I’m not certain Mitford, or Mortimer, quite explicate her. She is a bird in a cage, a figure of pure longing. As played by James, she is forever in a state of craving, always hyperventilating for a taste of freedom, as she makes her way from one exploit to another — a Bolter in her own way who despises her own little daughter. James can be irritating at moments, with so very much affect, but then so can Linda. She is just this side of whiney. She doesn’t much care about breaking social rules, and she secretly likes getting the stinkeye from wealthy snobs, but she is nonetheless doomed to a life without much choice.
THE PURSUIT OF LOVE
Starring Lily James, Emily Beecham, Andrew Scott, Dominic West, Dolly Wells, Annabel Mullion, Emily Mortimer
On Amazon, premieres Friday