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FX’s Better Things is such a spectacular show that I often watch episodes wondering how the industry might have been better if somebody had given Pamela Adlon the writing-directing-acting keys to the kingdom a decade earlier. One might say, “But would she have been as remarkably versatile and talented behind the camera without that additional experience?” One can’t possibly know. Odd, though, how that’s a justification applied more frequently to women than men.
Similar thoughts passed through my mind several times watching Amazon and the BBC’s The Pursuit of Love, a limited series that marks the wildly promising directing debut of actor Emily Mortimer, who previously turned her attention to writing and producing with the similarly assured dark comedy series Doll & Em. The Pursuit of Love, based on the novel by Nancy Mitford, has issues with pacing in its three-hour adaptation, and the swings from very broad comedy to earnest feminism aren’t always fluid, but there’s still so much confidence to the style and performances.
Mitford’s novel was published in 1945, but it’s inevitable that many responses to the series, especially on the American side of The Pond, where it has a slightly lower profile, will compare it to more recent fare, likely calling it a more bubbly My Brilliant Friend by way of Bridgerton, while also boosting Amazon sales of the book.
The series, set mostly between world wars, is narrated by Fanny (Emily Beecham), essentially orphaned by a mother so impetuous they call her The Bolter (Mortimer). When she isn’t advancing her schooling, Fanny is yearning for Alconleigh, the family estate owned by her Uncle Matthew (Dominic West), a gregarious and mustachioed World War I veteran whose dislike for foreigners is matched only by his irritation at educated women. Fanny’s closest friend and confidant is her cousin Linda (Lily James), who is in most ways Fanny’s opposite. If Fanny is sensible and enamored with Virginia Woolf, Linda is mercurial — always either laughing or crying — and in love with the idea of love.
As the two girls pass from adolescence into adulthood, they take sometimes parallel and sometimes diverging paths to romance and motherhood, and to independence during a historical moment in which female interiority was slow to be recognized and valued. Their story is a commentary on fictional treatments of female love and desire as much as a representation of those things.
The idea here is that both our heroines, but also possibly maligned figures like The Bolter, are representative of a shift toward a more modern female identity, and toward a more modern identity at large, as embodied by Andrew Scott as the forward-looking Lord Merlin. Mortimer’s stylistic approach is to match that modernity, with quirky cutaways, attention-grabbing freeze-frames and cheeky title cards that maybe call to mind Wes Anderson but really have more in common with British cinema of the ’60s and the way something like Tom Jones made period hijinks feel current. It’s all augmented by anachronistic soundtrack choices — from T. Rex to New Order to Le Tigre — that, like everything else in the show, share a sense of emotional rambunctiousness even if they aren’t always of a coherent piece.
From its in medias res opening to several time-bridging montages — Mortimer’s use of black-and-white documentary footage to introduce the Blitz or Paris in the 1930s is a likable device — The Pursuit of Love has a narrative choppiness that often captures the series’ jaunty spirit, but just as often left me challenged to fully invest in some of the key relationships. When it chooses to skip over rather than fully develop Fanny and Linda’s love interests — models of boring stability, rakish desire or self-righteous nobility — that’s within the show’s theme. When the story is structured to give Fanny and Linda’s friendship the same rushed, sometimes repetitive beats, it points to an adaptation that might have worked a bit better at either two hours or six.
This costs the series some of the gravity it clearly wants to have in its last hour, though it’s completely possible that in the editing room there was a recognition that The Pursuit of Love works better as a rollicking comedy, which is fair and points to how solidly Mortimer has the cast on a common page.
The supporting performances tend toward the bigger side, delivering ample entertainment with their outsize enthusiasm. West finds Uncle Matthew’s likability in his voluble bellowing, generating affection for a character who would otherwise be the villain here. Scott makes the choice to introduce Lord Merlin as a 1930s incarnation of David Bowie, and glam rock pansexuality is a pretty solid choice if you’re playing the sort of character who lets a white pony wander around inside his country estate. Mortimer, Shazad Latif and Mortimer’s Doll & Em cohort Dolly Wells have great moments as well, though they lack the opportunity for quieter beats that West and Scott are afforded.
The two stars, naturally, have the more fully dimensional characters, especially Beecham, who is believably withdrawn and repressed at times and explodes with convincing volubility when alcohol consumption or agitation requires. Playing a character who lives in extremes, James gets to go big in ways that are very funny and, when necessary, very tragic. Going back to my earlier My Brilliant Friend comparison, The Pursuit of Love captures the co-dependence of Linda and Fanny’s relationship and, as with Elena and Lila’s dynamic in the Elena Ferrante books and HBO adaptation, you’re never supposed to be sure which woman’s life represents progress.
Whatever its occasional inconsistencies are, though, The Pursuit of Love never comes across as the work of a first-timer. It’s never stagey or stodgy, and even when I don’t completely get something, like the full logic of the soundtrack, the series is never haphazard. As an actor, Mortimer has given terrific, perhaps underrated performances in everything from Match Point to Lars and the Real Girl to Lovely and Amazing to a nearly unplayable character in The Newsroom. But now I’m really excited to see what she’s going to force the industry to let her do behind the camera, and I’m curious if she could have already been doing this sort of work for a decade.
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