Television

Enjoy the Quirky Moodiness of Amazon's Costume Drama The Pursuit of Love

Sly humor prevents this book adaptation from becoming stuffy.

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The Pursuit of LoveAvailable now on Amazon Prime Video.

If you thought the Bundys or the Bunkers or the Sopranos were dysfunctional families, you should have seen the Mitfords, who didn't even have the advantage of screenwriters to help craft their venom.

Six daughters of the minor British aristocracy, the Mitfords were the early 20th century's more highbrow version of the Kardashians, a collection of authors, adulterers, totalitarians, spies, pansexuals, anti-Semites and suicidal loons who could have filled up an entire cable news network if one had existed back in their day. The lone son in the mix did his bit for familial derangement as well. Tom Mitford carried on a long, adulterous affair with a well-known Jewish dancer while admiring fascism so ardently that he refused to fight in Europe during World War II.

The family dynamics were about what you would expect, only more so. "The great advantage of living in a large family," observed Nancy, the clan's senior writer, "is that early lesson of life's essential unfairness."

She might have added that it also provides an endless stream of source material for writing projects. Nancy's trilogy of novels about the Radletts, a manically heir-headed tribe of British swells, drew generously from the misadventures of the Mitfords. And now the BBC has adapted the first volume, The Pursuit of Love, into a tony,  if also slightly madcap, soap opera that aired in Europe a couple of months ago and this week gets its American television debut on the Amazon Prime Video streaming service.

Pursuit is about a lot of different things—the sheer bat guano-ness of the Mitfords, the mindless faddism of the British ruling class, the intellectual and moral shallowness of the fanatic followers of the century's most frightful utopian ideologies, the communists and the Nazis—but it's mostly a chronicle of female friendship in an age of unregenerate male supremacy. It follows the sometimes embattled, but always profound, friendship between the gorgeous but flaky Linda Radlett (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) and her more staid cousin Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham, Into the Badlands), who narrates their story.

Together, for a quarter of a century, they endure the lunatic whims of batty parents, stultifying husbands and unhinged family members. (At one point, they even journey to America to retrieve an AWOL Radlett sister who's run away to Hollywood in hopes of marrying an actor she saw in a pirate movie.) They dodge their way through the political bombshells of the run-up to World War II and the not-at-all metaphorical ones that follow. They boldly insist they'll be nothing like their parents, then cringe at evidence of the opposite.

It is the parents who prove the most formidable obstacles to domestic tranquility. Fanny's mother (played with scatterbrained energy by Pursuit's writer-director, Emily Mortimer) has fled so many husbands that she's known even to family members as The Bolter. That has left Fanny's upbringing mostly in the hands of her uncle (and Linda's father) Matthew, a man of firm opinions: "I hate Huns, Frogs, Americans and Catholics and all other foreigners. But above all I hate children." Any suspicion that he's joking is dispelled during the family's annual Christmas Day celebrations, when the kids race through the forest pursued by Matthew's roaring hunting hounds.

The enforced solitude of Matthew's estate leaves the girls intellectually and socially crippled, especially Linda, whose dreams of rescue have led to her to falling hopelessly in love with the idea of falling hopelessly in love. Her random romances—first with a fascist banker ("I hate the working class—ravening beasts trying to get my money!"), then with a Communist Party organizer ("They just make speeches all the time," Linda broods after the sexual bloom is off the rose), quickly implode. A daughter bores her, even more than Fanny bored the Bolter.

Fanny's fancies are more modest; as a teenager, when Linda is fantasizing that a prince's car will break down in front of the house, Fanny daydreams of a portly farmer she saw walking down the road. Yet she, too, winds up dissatisfied, complaining that the quiet life she fantasized about with an Oxford don has turned downright somnolent. Pursuit tries to frame this in feminist terms—"Happily married or unhappily married, that's the choice if you're a woman," one of the girls complains, wondering why a husband must be part of every equation. Yet often, the women's unhappiness seems mostly of their own making. As adolescents, they lay about the manor, waiting for their lives to begin; as adults, they mostly long for a return to the easy decisions and trifling consequences of adolescence.

If Pursuit sounds like one of those mannered costume dramas that the BBC turns out like soggy fish and chips, well, at least partly, it is. But Mortimer saves it with sly humor, imaginative camerawork and a cleverly anachronistic rock-and-roll soundtrack—sort of like Sofia Coppola did with her 2006 royal soap Marie Antoinette, but much better. She's helped greatly by James' hilariously oblivious performance as the often clueless Linda (shocked, for instance, that marriage to a communist cell-organizer does not include maid service).

And the larger-than-life performance of Dominic West (The Wire) as the blustering Matthew is a thing of consummate beauty, or ugliness, or something. How can you not love a character who hangs over the family dinner table the entrenching tool with which he beat eight Germans to death as they emerged from a trench during World War I?

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