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10 May 2021

Emily Mortimer’s The Pursuit of Love is bold, barmy and never boring

Her adaptation of Nancy Mitford's novel features subtitles, freeze-frames and loud blasts of T Rex.

By Rachel Cooke

Since I hardly know where to begin with Emily Mortimer’s adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love (9 May, 9pm), I might as well start with the moment when, bang in the middle of episode one, the hairs on my head (and everywhere else) stood suddenly to attention, and I found myself dancing ecstatically around the room. No, the scene in question wasn’t, on the surface of it, terribly exciting: Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott) was instructing Linda Radlett (Lily James) in the ways of high culture, and they were gazing at paintings and follies and stuff. But when the Hot Priest, late of the parish of Fleabag, is playing one of your favourite characters to the unlikely soundtrack of New Order’s “Ceremony”, strange things do tend to happen both to mind and body.

There was a time in my life when the particular combination of Lord Merlin and Barney Sumner was all I needed to imagine myself perfectly (if briefly) happy. A book, a record. They could not, in most ways, be more different. But both speak to youthful yearning; like Linda, I was impossibly romantic, something that brought me, as it does her, only trouble. So while Mortimer’s version of The Pursuit of Love is, in my eyes, often flawed (she wrote the screenplay, directed, and periodically appears as The Bolter, the badly behaved mother of Linda’s cousin, Fanny), I’m also inclined to forgiveness. Her deployment of New Order’s jagged baseline alone tells you that she gets the book’s darkness as well as its lightness; that it once spoke to her, as it has spoken to so many young women. All I would say is that if you haven’t read the novel, don’t let this version of it, in which so much is (inevitably) flattened and made cartoony, put you off trying it one day soon.

[See also: Is it time to end our Mitford obsession?]

And whatever else it gets wrong, this series is never boring (the greatest sin of all, in Mitford’s eyes). You’ll likely know the story, which is narrated by Fanny (Emily Beecham). The Radletts are an eccentric family of aristocrats, one closely modelled on Mitford’s own; the children, including Linda, spend most of their time sequestered in an airing cupboard, hiding from their dictator of a father, Lord Alconleigh, aka Uncle Matthew (Dominic West). He doesn’t believe in the education of women, and eventually poor, beautiful, bored Linda escapes via a too hasty marriage – the first of a series of unsuitable liaisons (rather excitingly, Fabrice, the French Duke with whom she ends up, will be played by Assaad Bouab, aka Hicham in Netflix’s Call My Agent).

It’s not my job to convince you that the novel’s bracing ironies, most of which Mortimer has kept intact, are funny and life-affirming; they will never appeal to inverted snobs or those who struggle to find the posh remotely sympathetic (neither of which I am, so shoot me). But I can tell you that her adaptation, with its subtitles, freeze-frames and loud blasts of T Rex, owes a debt to Whit Stillman’s 2016 film Love & Friendship, which he based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Performance-wise, West is over the top as Uncle Matthew, though I can’t help laughing whenever he says “entrenching tool” ; and Freddie Fox is a bit too dangerous an actor to be right as the deadly Tony Kroesig, whom Linda marries, even if I can’t take my eyes off his hair, which is what soft scoop ice cream would be like if it were made of pure gold (honestly, all it needs is a security guard and a Flake).

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But everyone else is pretty marvellous: Dolly Wells as Aunt Sadie, John Heffernan as (Fanny’s almost-stepfather) Davey, Scott as Merlin, that brilliantly camp repository of wisdom (“Love is for grown-ups,” he rightly tells Linda, appalled by the Kroesig match. “It has nothing to do with marriage.”) A lot rests on the shoulders of whoever plays his short-lived protégée: if she’s silly, she is also adorable, a hard trick to pull off. But somewhat to my amazement, James is just about perfect. Through all the sighing and gurning and histrionics, her character’s abiding open-heartedness – her sheer, flaming spirit – can always be felt. Linda/Lily is ever lovely: a certain kind of Everywoman, all restlessness and lust.

[See also: Elon Musk’s Saturday Night Live appearance exposes the complacency of the liberal media]

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This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die