Film & Television

‘The Pursuit of Love’ Asks, “Are You a Bolter or a Sticker?”

Although originally promised for Christmas, the new Downton Abbey movie is now scheduled for release on March 18, 2022. That’s 220 days away. 

As Lord Grantham would say, “Crikey!”

If you’re in pursuit of some more immediate period drama, you could do worse than watch The Pursuit of Love. Gorgeous costumes, fox-hunting on a country estate, romances (both sanctioned and forbidden), countless cups of tea. If you’ve missed Downton Abbey (or even Bridgerton, for that matter), you could definitely do worse. 

Then again, The Pursuit of Love could have been just a little bit better.

Based on the popular 1946 novel by Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love was adapted and directed by Emily Mortimer (Relic and Mary Poppins Returns), who also has a recurring and quite funny role. The three one-hour episodes take us from the 1920s to the 1940s, from the years right after World War I to the start of World War II, and focus on the lives and loves of cousins Linda Radlett and Fanny Logan.

Linda, played by Downtons Lily James, is the wild one. Desperate to escape the confines of her father’s estate, “a large, ugly, north-facing house high on a hill in Oxfordshire,” not to mention proper English society, she longs for romance.

Fanny, played by Emily Beecham, is the steady one. Abandoned by her mother (Mortimer), nicknamed “the Bolter” by the family in reference to the number of men she’s loved and left, Fanny wants stability and a safe, predictable family life.

Fanny is also our narrator and quite clearly in love with her more passionate cousin. “Her emotions were on no ordinary plane,” she tells us. “She loved or she loathed. She laughed or she cried. She lived in a world of superlatives.” As teens, Linda dreams of marrying the Prince of Wales; Fanny is content with idolizing a local farmer.

When Linda’s father, “Uncle Matthew” (Dominic West), ferociously opposed to “foreigners” and educating daughters, finally allows the girls to have a coming-out ball, he invites the entire septuagenarian House of Lords, rather than any eligible bachelors. No matter: through a bit of deception, chance, and ingenuity, the girls manage to make matches. Fanny marries a stuffy young Oxford don and begins immediately to procreate. Linda marries wealthy bad boy Tony Kroesig, whose father insists that Hitler was a right hospitable fellow when they met once over banking business. 

Despite bearing a daughter with the unfortunate name of “Moira,” Linda soon finds she prefers being “what’s known as a society beauty” than a dutiful wife. And, when things become unbearable, she leaves Tony for communist activist Christian Talbot. After volunteering to help Spanish Civil War refugees in France, Linda realizes that Christian loves another, and winds up in Paris in the arms (and boudoir) of noble charmer Fabrice de Sauveterre.

“You’ve got to believe in something other than love!” Fanny pleads with her. Linda shrugs, “What else is there?” Despite the choices of their respective mothers, Linda has become “the Bolter” to Fanny’s “Sticker.” The point is driven home as each younger woman gets unsolicited advice. Linda’s mother scolds, “I don’t like the lighthearted way you abandoned little Moira.” Fanny’s mother warns her, “Don’t let your children get in the way of your life, darling!”

In The Pursuit of Love, women don’t have many choices. They can follow the rules and live a dull life or they can break the rules and live freely, but notoriously. “Am I a bit of a prig?” Fanny worries to her husband. Yet she’s quick to judge her more adventurous cousin, at one point observing that Linda had “proceeded to fritter away years of her life with absolutely nothing to show for them.”

Neither Linda nor Fanny is truly happy. The trouble is, neither Linda nor Fanny is entirely likeable. It’s difficult to fully relate to either of them.

Linda really is a selfish and thoughtless creature throughout. It’s as though the character James played in Downton Abbey was stuck in season four when she was a petulant, disobedient flapper who would do anything to shock her detested “mummy.” She never gets to become the kind-hearted Lady Rose who serves tea to Russian immigrants and saves the face of her philandering father-in-law in season five. Lady Rose grew up; Linda doesn’t.

Fanny is more sympathetic; she’s certainly more responsible and rational. But she whines a bit too much, and has a black hole of a blind spot where her cousin is concerned. Her husband, who finds and reads the diary she kept as a teen, wonders whether she’s enamored with or jealous of Linda. Um … that would be yes and yes.

My only issue with The Pursuit of Love is this dichotomy of “woman” it insists on perpetuating. You’re either a Bolter or a Sticker; a virgin or a whore. Fanny is dissatisfied and envies Linda her passionate life. Linda is never satisfied either, although she tells her cousin, “Don’t pity me; I had five perfectly wonderful months. How many people can say that?”

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy here. Mortimer’s script moves along nicely, sometimes with bits of delightful humor. There are colorful secondary characters, like bohemian neighbor Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott) who dyes pigeons pink and blue, allows horses in the drawing room, and sees Linda as a muse/protégée. The director sets up picturesque tableaux and inserts funny title cards. Music is contemporary and often tongue-in-cheek, reminding me of other wry period pieces, like Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and the more recent series The Great. The very first song is Pete Townshend’s “Blue, Red, and Grey” from the 1975 album “Who By Numbers,” a song I had completely forgotten about although I played that record non-stop through eighth grade. The sweet but melancholy lyrics “The people on the hill, they say I’m crazy/But when they sleep, I sing and dance” describe the life Linda wants to live, but never quite does.

Toward the end of the series, quiet and kindly Aunt Emily, who raised Fanny in the Bolter’s absence, sums it all up nicely. In the future, she says, “Let’s hope women can decide who they are, irrespective of who they marry.”

Both Linda and Fanny would agree.

The Pursuit of Love is available to stream on Amazon Prime.


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