[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
It should be impossible to condense a single life (much less a pair of them) into three hours, but Emily Mortimer gets about as close as you can get in “The Pursuit of Love.” The two in question: a couple of cousins, Linda (Lily James) and Fanny (Emily Beecham), who journey from growing up together on the comfortable estate of Linda’s family to diverging lives that test the strength of their deep bond.
Linda soon finds herself caught in a middle ground between yearning for a marriage of swoon-worthy love and being drawn in by the various libertines who flit through her social circle. Fanny, narrating this story in retrospect, is spooked in part by the reputation of her mother, who left her behind to chase an endless string of flings that burn bright and short.
Directing and adapting the series from the 1945 Nancy Mitford novel of the same name, Mortimer takes visual and pacing cues from her two main subjects. Where plenty of the looks at the same time period are content with a trot, “The Pursuit of Love” gallops through the years — enough of a brisk pace to recognize the difference but not so quick that any viewers are in danger of flying off and being left behind. There’s a cheekiness in how Mortimer introduces plenty of the new individuals to Linda and Fanny’s lives, a spiritual descendant of Wes Anderson (from whom “Pursuit of Love” sneaks a music cue or two) and Whit Stillman’s delicious “Love & Friendship.” That spirit persists through nearly the entire series, even when Linda and Fanny fall on hard times.
It helps that the three hourlong episodes map on neatly to stages of the two’s parallel journeys. The opening chapter finds Linda and Fanny growing into their individual hopes as well as their desire to live out those dreams in tandem. By the beginning of the middle episode, the prospect of being able to tackle an unpredictable world of marriage, temptation, desire side-by-side(-by-side) is gone. The distance between them becomes more and more literal. By the time the story has reached its bittersweet conclusion, it’s not just their families that have been tested by expectations incongruous with reality. The world around them starts to shift as Europe heads toward a transformational conflict of its own.
It takes a certain amount of confidence to tackle twin portraits like this and to do it with the brightness that “The Pursuit of Love” manages to keep. At the end of Episode 2, as one character has hit their personal rock bottom, their very public breakdown turns into a kind of laughter that even they can’t understand. Some of it is accidental good fortune, but much of it is Mortimer finding the sharper edges in Mitford’s story presenting them in sunlight. Linda’s trips to nightclubs both bohemian and upper crust are bathed in a rainbow of mood lighting, but even the fancy brunches and well-to-do family suppers still pop.
And this ensemble also helps keep the story bubbling throughout. James and Beecham are both fantastic, whether together or apart. You can feel all the years between them. Shazad Latif (almost unrecognizable from his memorable time on “Star Trek: Discovery”) plays Fanny’s eventual partner as a counterpoint to Linda’s freewheeling lovers, but never veering into caricature. Mortimer herself joins in occasionally as Fanny’s absent mother (known in family circles as “The Bolter,” a nickname meant as an insult that eventually grows to become a slight term of affection). After launching this feature with “The Hour,” I promise not every pick is going to feature Dominic West and Andrew Scott, but they’re both so perfectly cast (as Linda’s stern ex-officer father and the family’s rascally neighbor Lord Merlin) that they have to be mentioned here, too.
All of this comes together to make a show that can carry the weight of decades but still have the freedom to show a handful of those years tick by in a single montage of lost and misspent nights. Pursuing love takes balance, after all.
One More Reason to Watch: Lord Merlin’s grand character entrance has to be seen to be appreciated. Here’s a sneak peek — just know that it’s somehow better in context.
Pair It With: Hosted by Nikki Boyer, the podcast “Dying for Sex” chronicles one woman’s journey to completely revamp her life after being diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. It’s a series about connection, intimacy, and understanding, all told through a pair of friends facing the world together, even if it plays out for each of them in very different ways.
Other Fans: Jon O’Brien wrote this Decider appreciation of the series’ soundtrack, dissecting all the ways that music supervisor (and member of The Bad Seeds) George Vjestica assembles a collection of needle drops that connect past and present. It’s a fair assessment of how not every choice entirely works, though most do — that’s part of what gives the overall show its appeal.