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The Pursuit of Love is streaming on BBC iPlayer.

“You’ve got to believe in something other than love!” cries Fanny (Emily Beecham), as her wayward cousin Linda (Lily James) embarks on another of the impulsive quests for personal satisfaction that are her trademark. Linda’s answer – “What else is there?” – produces Fanny’s own trademark: a look of mingled bemusement, disapproval and envy.

This is the dynamic that charges this jumpy, self-conscious adaptation of the 1945 novel by Nancy Mitford, scripted and directed by Emily Mortimer: stick-in-the-mud Fanny makes the case for marital fidelity and raising one’s own children, chiefly through the medium of facial expressions; reckless sexpot Linda lives according to her whims and complains about being disapproved of.

Mitford’s book, inspired by her own famously eccentric aristocratic clan, depicts lavish living and madcap decision-making as thin masks for chaos and dysfunction. Marriages are ramshackle temporary arrangements, children are dumped on relatives by those who find parenting too tedious for words, and political convictions and intellectual endeavours alike are fashion-driven diversions from… well, from what?

Emily Beecham as Fanny and Lily James as Linda in The Pursuit of Love (2021)

Replicated in Mortimer’s new version is the strange nihilism at the heart of this most crowded, chatty and superficially sparkly of narratives, in which being a good-time girl is a meaningless distraction from the void within (“Linda then proceeded to fritter away years of her life with absolutely nothing to show for them,” observes Fanny’s voiceover), as is committing oneself fully to home and children (“Am I a bit of a prig?” Fanny frets to her husband), or having a job, or not having a job, or agitating for social change, or reading books, or not reading books. Born into the sort of wealth and social standing that precludes the need to just get on with things, Linda and Fanny suffer an excess of choice; and both, in their different ways, feel very hard-done-by about it.

Is this a pertinent message for the year 2021? Possibly, complaint about disadvantage from the ostensibly highly privileged being a powerful characteristic of our age. It’s an unfashionable one, however. Current mores tend to have it that people born into wealth should acknowledge and feel responsibility for their disproportionate comfort and influence, not complain about how difficult it makes things for them.

This adaptation is cheerfully inconsistent about whether it is satirising a bunch of narcissistic parasites or begging sympathy for the predicament of people trapped in a system that wastes their potential. It confronts the ambiguity of its intentions partly through staginess. Mortimer has borrowed from Wes Anderson cutesy symmetrical compositions and picture-book intertitles introducing characters, and from Marie Antoinette (2006) and The Favourite (2018) showily anachronistic music cues and a sardonic tone. Collages of still photographs also crop up to locate us within real historical contexts.

The anti-realism of the presentation kicks in early: Beecham and James begin the three-part series playing Fanny and Linda as young adolescents, despite being evidently women in their thirties. If this was intended in part to indicate problematic unwillingness to grow up, particularly on Linda’s part, it also achieves the opposite, inducing the viewer to regard the pair as overindulged adults from the beginning, rather than neglected children who become damaged adults. The ensuing story largely serves to emphasise and emphasise again the binary choice it visualises for women: dash around being thrilling, or sulk sensibly at home?

The Pursuit of Love (2021)

Whether or not one regards that as a pressing dilemma, the show doesn’t quite justify either Fanny’s or its own investment in Linda. Though people say things like “I can’t imagine the world without Linda!” and James labours visibly to convey irrepressible charisma, the viewer gathers little evidence of Linda being anything other than an obnoxious flibbertigibbet.

Mortimer’s effort to present her as a wounded bird too spirited for this world’s restrictions keeps running up against the inconvenience of the daughter she has unceremoniously dumped; when Linda’s mother Sadie (Dolly Wells) remarks, “I don’t like the lighthearted way you abandoned little Moira, Linda,” she is swathed in gothic gloom, as if she’s directly voicing the forces of oppression.

Fanny’s largely absent mother, meanwhile – known as the Bolter for her marital unreliability, and played with enjoyable cut-glass nastiness by Mortimer herself – has wisdom to impart to the daughter she decided not to raise. “Don’t let your children get in the way of your life, darling!” she tells a heavily pregnant Fanny.

This depiction of motherhood as an inevitable curb on potential is awkward – the result, perhaps, of trying to squeeze a message of current relevance out of material depicting lifestyles almost nobody really has. Other earnest moments, as when Linda encounters the poor during a Scarlett O’Hara-ish stint in war-torn Spain, also land awkwardly. “There is a selfishness to her,” murmurs poor old Fanny in the last episode. There is, and not much else; the show does best when it stops striving to indicate otherwise.

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

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