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Any series that opens with Pete Townshend on its soundtrack crooning “Blue, Red and Grey” from the Who By Numbers album is OK in my book.
“The Pursuit of Love” sets that quirky tone right from the get-go and doesn’t let up. But don’t let that fool you; the three-episode series, premiering Friday on Amazon, dishes out equal parts pathos and humor as it tells the intertwined tale of English cousins Linda and Fanny and their journeys through love, loss and friendship spanning the years 1921 to ’41.
The series is written and directed by actress Emily Mortimer (“Shutter Island,” “The Newsroom”) and adapted from Nancy Mitford’s eponymous novel. Mortimer also plays a small-but-key onscreen role; the bulk of the oft-flippant scenario is carried by Lily James as Linda and Emily Beecham as Fanny — and they both do a fine job delineating the cousins’ complicated, thisclose bond throughout a journey that will take them on wildly divergent paths.
Linda is the more romantic of the two; as a young girl in 1921, she dreams of marrying the Prince of Wales — she’s convinced she will do just that — while Fanny, who narrates the series, is more sensible (a local farmer will do) after living her young life virtually abandoned by her mother (Mortimer) — who’s nicknamed “The Bolter” for leaving Fanny at an alarming rate to run off and marry a faceless parade of men, putting her sister in charge of raising Fanny by herself.
Fanny spends each Christmas with Linda’s family, the wealthy, landed Radletts, at their English-countryside manor, lorded over by xenophobic Uncle Matthew (Dominic West), Linda’s imperious father, whose main pleasures in life are fox hunting and spouting his loud opinions about a range of subjects (mostly his dislike of “foreigners”). West sounds a bit like the late gap-toothed British actor Terry-Thomas here in all his fulminating glory. Uncle Matthew tolerates Fanny but fears she’ll have a negative effect on Linda who, if everything goes according to plan, will remain under his thumb even after he grudgingly marries her off to a suitable match (read: a rich, titled gentleman — and no foreigners!).
As the series progresses and the calendar flips from year to the next, Linda and Fanny grow up and venture out in the world — Linda marrying the obnoxious know-it-all Tony Kroesig (Freddie Fox), who’s sympathetic to German causes, while Fanny falls in love with and marries studious, dependable Oxford student Alfred Wincham (Shazad Latif). It’s the only marriage for Fanny (she tells us right off the bat) but the first of several marriages and affairs for the free-spirited, emotionally charged Linda, who lives “in a world of superlatives” and falls in love at the drop of a hat (or the glance of an eye). Linda’s vulnerability is of chief concern for the Radletts’ wealthy neighbor, the handsome Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott), a free-spirited bohemian in whose mansion horses roam about freely amidst multi-colored pigeons (he’s dyed them blue and pink). He floats in and out of Linda’s throughout the show, trying, with Fanny, to help her curb her impulses.
Along the way you’ll meet a young British communist and a French playboy (Assaad Bouab) who both leaving lasting impressions on Linda, while Fanny slowly begins to assess her own happiness vis a vis Linda — and considers whether there’s more to life than keeping house, bearing children and pretending to like Alfred’s boring university colleagues.
“The Pursuit of Love” reminded me a little, of HBO’s “My Brilliant Friend” in contrasting the lives of polar-opposite best friends over a period of time. Mortimer shows a steady, light touch behind the camera, and the series seamlessly blends comedy and drama along with its anachronistic soundtrack and pithy title cards interspersed throughout (Example: “Bitchy Ladies at The Ritz.”) James and Beecham share a nice onscreen chemistry — though, as the hard-partying Linda, James doesn’t seem to age much over 20 years — but “Pursuit” avoids getting bogged down in its chronology as it flashes back in time from its opening scene, eventually returning there in the series finale.
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