United Kingdom

JAN MOIR reviews The Pursuit of Love as Lily James lights up BBC1

The Pursuit of Love

Rating:

On his fine English estate, Lord Alconleigh (Dominic West) determines that his fine English daughters will never leave the family home, except to marry fine English gentlemen.

'Church, stables, tennis courts,' he roars, listing the facilities on offer. 'Why would they ever want to leave?'

He wants his gels to rot in Alconleigh's ivory towers, along with their threadbare sweaters and impoverished minds, until suitable marriages are made. 

Not to random cads or handsome swains (all 'sewers' according to him) but to husbands meeting his approval, preferably his dull chums from the House of Lords.

Lord Alconleigh (Dominic West) determines his daughters will never leave home, except to marry fine gentlemen, but his daughter Linda (both pictured) (Lily James) has other ideas

His favourite daughter Linda (Lily James) has other ideas. She is a wild and nervous creature, full of passion and longing, a total cad magnet.

'I ache for life to be exciting,' she says. Linda is a Leaver, not a Remainer.

Much has been made of the supposed real-life romance between the married West and the footloose James, which apparently blossomed on the set of this new three-part adaptation of the classic interwar novel by Nancy Mitford.

Yet little forbidden ardour leaks into their scenes together, not least because they are playing a father and a daughter – so let's keep it legal.

Instead he roars around like a tweedy tornado, sporting a moustache that would be the envy of any walrus.

In grand rooms, chilled by paternal disapproval, he punishes Linda for her defiance, while she rebels against his bullying strictures – yet loves him still. 

'He is frightening and I disapprove of him so. But in a way, he sets the bar for English manhood,' she says. Indeed.

But who couldn't fall in love with Lily in this glossy drama? Her Linda is irresistible, a champagne bubble of a girl, raven-haired and ravenous for romance – although sorely unprepared for its consequences.

The supposed real-life romance between the married West and James (pictured in Rome) apparently blossomed on the set of this three-part adaptation of the novel by Nancy Mitford

Whether splashing about in her bath or riding to hounds in her jodhpurs, James captures the quicksilver, absurd flightiness of a character who blossoms into a woman who would have liked to think that she was 'more than a little sin of the body'. Shall I say it again? Indeed.

Cousin Fanny (Emily Beecham) is the Bridget Jones of the hour; the dutiful chronicler, narrator and timorous Robin to Linda's blazing Batman.

She is also an eternal disappointment to her Uncle Matthew (Lord Alconleigh) for not only has she been educated, she introduces his daughter to frightful Non-U words such as 'mantelpiece' and 'notepaper'.

Little wonder that in a bid to make the adventures of these two over-privileged, husband-hunting aristos relatable to the terrifyingly stringent mores of modern audiences, this adaptation focuses on their bonds of female friendship, steadfast even under fire from incoming cads.

For this we have to thank Emily Mortimer, who directed, adapted and even played a role, starring as Fanny's mother, aka The Bolter. 

She hums around like Mrs Merton in a fascinator, and even has a cigarette holder to illustrate her jazzy decadence. 

'Does the world really need another costume drama about posh people in a big house in England?' she asked herself before work began on Mitford's beloved masterpiece.

Obviously she decided that is exactly what we did need, despite the fact that this is the third time The Pursuit Of Love has been adapted for television.

To spice things up, Mortimer appears to have asked everyone to pitch their performances somewhere between feverish and total hysteric, then had a nervous rummage in the special effects box.

She has created a frothy adaptation with a modern sheen; complete with slo-mo sequences, freeze frames and a daring contemporary soundtrack featuring the likes of Iggy Pop and New Order.

In this, she borrows much from films such as The Favourite (which starred Olivia Colman as Queen Anne) and Sofia Coppola's high concept version of Marie Antoinette, and even director Wes Anderson – but why not? 

Cousin Fanny (Emily Beecham) (pictured with Lily James) is the Bridget Jones of the hour; the dutiful chronicler, narrator and timorous Robin to Linda's blazing Batman

Purists might disapprove, but here she manages to encapsulate much of the sly comedy of the novel, alongside the happiness and promise of youth that brims from its early pages.

In one scene, Uncle Matthew's eyes bulge like golf balls (Non-U) when Linda waltzes with dashing Tony Kroesig (Freddie Fox) who not only has a German name ('Hun!') but a quiff to boot. 

'Who is that sewer dancing with Linda?' he bellows. All this makes us fret over the palpitating expectation of love held by these lovely young girls, ill equipped for the journey ahead.

This Pursuit is a delight for many reasons, not least because it just looks so gorgeous, glowing with colour and texture from the pink walls of the hotel dining room, to the bobbled wool on Linda's Fair Isle sweater to the crepe paper party hats at Christmas, decorated with period perfect silver rickrack.

There are moments when an atmosphere of clotted camp almost overwhelms, but what do we expect from a family who live in a world of superlatives?

A high point is Andrew Scott playing Lord Merlin ('that depraved sewer') in polka-dot pyjamas while dancing to T.Rex, or explaining to a perplexed Lady Radlett (Dolly Wells) why he dyes his pet pigeons pastel every year.

'They love it. It makes them pretty for each other,' he observes. As Linda and the pigeons might say, isn't it lovely, being lovely us.

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