How fitting: this adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s most intoxicating novel is so good that it made me feel a bit drunk. It arrives to fill the Line of Duty-shaped hole in our Sunday nights and will blissfully eradicate all memories of police officers shouting about ‘HONES-TAAAAY and IN-TEG-RAAA-TAAAY’.
Adapted and directed by Emily Mortimer with mischievous Mitfordian spirit, it’s got the lot: romance, secret meetings in cupboards, sploshing bath water, angry upper-class patriarchs, luscious interiors and biting wit. The star-studded cast are having a hoot too: Lily James, Andrew Scott, Emily Beecham and Dominic West are all on shriek-worthy top form (just don’t mention microscooters in Rome).
Our heroine is Linda Radlett (James), a romantic soul who smooches windows and throws Virginia Woolf books out of the window; her far more practical cousin and best friend Fanny (Beecham) is our narrator. Bored to death in the family’s big country pile (yes, they’re all mad poshos, but just go with it), Linda is desperate to escape her father, Uncle Matthew (West), who hates educated women, going abroad, and, well, anything remotely modern. As a teenager she declares: “I aspire to true love – the kind that only comes once in a lifetime and lasts forever.” That’s pretty much her manifesto for life - always searching for something bigger, deeper and true.
If that all sounds a bit silly and girly, it’s not. For Linda, the pursuit of love is really the quest for experience. Although the novel, published in 1945, is closer to our time than Austen, its young women are still at the mercy of the marriage market – rushing into unions with terrible men, believing it will offer them escape rather than just a change of scenery. Naturally, Linda falls in love with the first man she sees, Tony Kroesig (Freddie Fox looking like a Babyliss curling tong has held him at knifepoint), a pompous bore who later becomes a Tory MP - in one knowing shot, he reclines on the green benches a la Jacob Rees-Mogg. She learns the hard way that marriage isn’t the fairy tale she thought it would be. Somewhere along the way, the Radletts’ neighbour, Lord Merlin (Scott) tries to mentor Linda and mould her as a bright young thing – but her intensity and headlong hunger for life pave the way for more disastrous love affairs. “What if you die?” Fanny asks her. “I’m not that sort of person,” Linda replies.
Mortimer is the perfect match for Mitford: she totally gets her knowing humour and irreverent tone, but she also finds a playful and visually joyful way to tell the story. The novel, which cemented the legend of the Mitford sisters, is slender but not meticulously structured – Mortimer makes a virtue of this by making it feel like we’re rifling through an old scrapbook, with scenes interspersed with tongue-in-cheek captions and black and white pictures. The soundtrack, which includes Le Tigre, Sleater-Kinney and T-Rex, adds an electric sense of Linda as a modern rebel.
It’s an aesthetic feast, but Mortimer also subtly illuminates parts of the novel in ways that shed new light. Fanny becomes much more than a perfunctory narrator - here’s she the ying to Linda’s yang, a devoted soulmate who happens to choose a different path. The pair become unmoored without one another – it’s just that Linda expresses it more dramatically. And Linda’s cold relationship to her daughter – one of the novel’s most famous lines is “it’s kinder not to look” just after she’s been born - becomes much more understandable; it’s the result of a woman experiencing deteriorating mental health after a traumatic childbirth and an unloving marriage.
It may seem a stretch to have James and Beecham – 32 and 36 respectively – playing Linda and Fanny from teenagers, but they brilliantly capture the intense, secret giggly-ness of a friendship between young women, and they grow up before our eyes. Beecham sympathetically portrays Fanny’s fears of descending into frumpy domesticity, while James’s triumphant performance as Linda gives us an effervescent heroine for the ages. As a teenager, she sobs, swoons and says things like “it’s hard enough to kill a rabbit, let alone oneself”, endearingly melodramatic without ever becoming cartoonish. Later, at her wedding to Tony, as she realises she’s making an awful mistake, she simply sighs and closes her eyes – and ages 10 years in a moment.
We’re quite frankly spoiled to have a cast this good firing on all cylinders. Scott and West are ridiculously perfect as the influential men in Linda’s life who each have the polar opposite effect. Lord Merlin, the arty neighbour who keeps pigeons and dyes them bright colours - “oh they love it! It makes them so pretty for one another” - is an eccentric. But Scott, as ever, does barmy with nuance, conjuring a friend who both nurtures and worries about Linda’s romantic sensibility.
West channels true unreconstructed masculinity as Uncle Matthew, screaming until he’s red in the face about how disgusting he finds adulterous women (smirk) and inviting only his crusty peer friends to his daughter’s dances. In one scene, observing Lord Merlin’s friends, he simmers, “That MAN is holding a COMB” as if it’s the most obscene thing he’s ever seen. Also wonderful is John Heffernan as Fanny’s hypochondriac new step-uncle Davey Warbeck, Assaad Bouab (of Call My Agent! fame) as charming French man Fabrice, the only man Linda truly connects with, and Mortimer herself as the Bolter, Fanny’s absent mother who is perpetually having affairs. Although she only pops up when she pleases, she haunts the action as a cautionary tale, everything Linda is warned not to become.
Maybe the script occasionally lays the ‘are you a Fanny or a Linda’ subtext on a bit thick - but its ultimate message is that women should have far greater choices available to them. It’s not just the most enjoyable period drama we’ve had in years, but a love letter to women who want more, and a celebration of the right to be different. Nancy Mitford would approve.
The Pursuit of Love is on BBC One on Sunday at 9pm