For a show premised on the messiness of romance, the gossipy chatter surrounding The Pursuit of Love dwarfed the buzz of its release. Sensationalized photos of the married Dominic West embracing his much younger co-star Lily James in Rome lit up British tabloids, leading to one of the most bizarre celebrity PR maneuvers in recent memory: West returning to his Irish estate and longtime wife, Catherine FitzGerald, then issuing a joint response on his affair to the press by handwritten letter. The message, which they left nestled into the greenery of their ornate garden, was simple: “Our marriage is strong. We are still very much together. Thank you.”
In many ways, the external drama around the miniseries mimics the drama within it. Based on the novel by Nancy Mitford and adapted and directed by Emily Mortimer, Amazon’s The Pursuit of Love centers on two cousins, Linda Radlett (Lily James) and Fanny (Emily Beecham) who both try to find self-fulfillment in their lives through relationships with men—but take wildly different approaches on achieving this goal. Linda never receives an education under her father’s (Dominic West) sexist mandates and abusive behavior. Fanny, while serially abandoned by her flighty mother (nicknamed “The Bolter” for her penchant for running away with various men), does secure schooling. While their behavior is inflected by this gap in education, their combined hunger for love and sex consumes both young women. Ensconced within a pastoral Somerset county estate, both women wile away the time, posed for explosion onto society.
The ways in which both Linda and Fanny later implode take on different tacts. Linda flits from marriage to marriage, indulging in affairs at her whimsy. Her life appears to pulse with glamour, scandal, and self indulgence to outside observers. Meanwhile, Fanny’s safer and more thoughtful approach to love appears to result in more stability; a quiet marriage to an Oxford academic who cares for her—but only at first blush. Fanny’s resentments rise counter to Linda’s exploits. While Linda oscillates from rags to riches and hops from one foolish adventure to the next, Fanny is always there to bail her out. At the same time, Fanny wants what Linda has: what appears like a full and daring life. Meanwhile, Linda looks for the next lover who will satiate her; in Linda’s eyes, Fanny’s life might represent a type of contentment that remains out of reach.
There’s a real sadness that permeates both characters; a real anger at the constriction of pre-war British gender roles both Linda and Fanny must play. The show undercuts this emotional overcast with a bit of irreverent editing and kitschy elements to lighten the fare, but the somberness is needed. At one point, Linda wails about her place as a woman, feeling like “a bird with clipped wings.” Fanny, who never even got to fly in her life, stoically watches on, even more of an embodiment of the problem Linda underlines.
As the three hourlong episodes unfold and then conclude, many of the men (including Andrew Scott, Freddie Fox, Shazad Latif, and Assaad Bouab) who dance in and out of these women’s lives could be interchangeable with a myriad of other characters. Like the letter from Dominic West and his wife in real life, both Linda and Fanny’s relationships become most interesting through what both of them try to convince themselves of: each other, their lovers, and the rest of the world regarding their happiness and relative stability. It’s a woman’s plight, albeit couched within the upper class. So often each character seems desperate for anyone to believe in their choices. It’s not hard to see the whole series as the two foils penning individual notes to the viewer: “My marriage is strong. I am still very much holding it together. Thank you.” By the end, maybe we can actually believe them.
The Pursuit of Love premieres Friday, July 30th on Amazon Prime.
Katherine Smith is Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her musings on popular culture, politics, and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith
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