Normal People: Review
Normal People should be lauded for its skill in capturing the essence and complexities of love, youth, friendship, heartbreak and family. Fans of Sally Rooney’s novel from which the series was adapted, will be pleased that the series remains intensely faithful to the novel’s spirit and characterisation – and might even prove to be better than the original.
The new BBC Three series documents the formative years of two friends-slash-lovers, Marianne and Connell, across twelve half-hour episodes, charting the ups and downs of their school and college lives in Ireland and abroad. It’s all here: school bullies, irritating teachers, passionate romance, parties at friends’ houses, college planning, tearful breakups, trips to Europe, and numerous departures and reunions.
Marianne and Connell are normal – and, importantly, real – people, riding the highs and lows of relationships and youth. With their fair share of intense romance, misunderstandings and arguments, and complex friend group dynamics, they could be anyone. Along with them they bring the audience, who will be sure to smile when they laugh, cringe when characters embarrass themselves and squirm when an unpleasant character – and there are a few – appears onscreen.
Bringing Rooney in to co-write the first six episodes with Alice Birch was a clever decision, as she helps to keep the series’ story close to that of the novel. This adaptation transplants multiple scenes and sequences from page to screen, sometimes with lines of dialogue lifted verbatim; if nothing else, this helps to ease audiences familiar with the work into the series.
The (roughly) thirty-minute structure helps keep things snappy and prevents stagnation, and no major changes to the plot of the novel intrude upon the tale’s essential momentum. Although many viewers will binge all twelve episodes at once, a series such as this also rewards moderation – two episodes here, another episode there – by allowing reflection between episodes on the themes and characters to enhance the viewing experience.
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal are utterly engrossing as Marianne and Connell. They make the shy glances and longing stares convincing and genuine; subtle changes in expression and emotion capture the audience’s attention and rarely let it wander. There is a rawness and freshness to their interplay, and their eyes alone convey heavy emotion. These are heavily charged and deeply impressive performances.
The dialogue between Marianne and Connell is the centrepiece of the story – the best moments are when the pair is sitting together in a room, talking – but it’s also the effective silences that expose and disrupt. Their scenes together are so real I unconsciously found myself imagining what I would say next in a given situation and mentally comparing to what is said by the characters. This relatability is what made the original novel so popular and is also a great boon for this adaptation: Normal People is a series that makes the audience care for its characters and sympathise for their wellbeing.
The series ends with audiences knowing less about the other people in Marianne’s and Connell’s lives, for although they are distinctly characterised, those characterisations remain mostly one-dimensional. Little more is known of Helen, for example, than how she is a good girlfriend for Connell. This is ultimately unimportant, however – indeed, perhaps a not unintentional creative decision – for ultimately their friends and family serve as foils for the pair at the centre of the story.
A potential criticism of the novel was its tendency in the latter half to become slightly muddled or indistinct, as both Marianne and Connell seemed to alternate between being in a relationship and being single, respectively, and then vice versa. The series avoids this by virtue of being able to present visually the contrast between their respective situations: Marianne’s tense and unequal relationship with Jamie, for example, is distinct from Connell’s steady relationship with Helen, and that is presented clearly onscreen.
Directors Lenny Abrahamson – who helmed the first six episodes – and Hattie Macdonald – who tackled the back half – know when to shoot scenes dynamically, and when to lock the camera in place and let the actors take the reins. (Both of these aspects are particularly evident in episode 10, for instance, the one where a school friend of Connell’s dies.) The numerous up-close, half-body camera shots clarify the intense magnetism between the leads; this is a visual technique that captures the tunnel vision and precise focus arising from an invigorating youthful infatuation. Often the entire background is blurred, drawing the focus to the person at the front of the frame and preventing the story from straying from either character.
The high-quality production value – think of the assured direction, a focused script and impressive lead performances – adds much to experience. The frequently dreary and wet Irish landscape and colour-muted house interiors contrast nicely with the intensity and fire of Marianne and Connell’s personal lives. Plus, some fantastic on-location shooting in Italy and Sweden injects variety while keeping both tone and character on-track.
Stephen Rennick’s beautiful minimalist score never intrudes upon the scene or distracts from the emotional heavy lifting. His mournful, contemplative and ponderous – but never indulgent – score is accompanied by some moving choices of popular music.
Normal People excels at being the story of people with normal lives: intimate, complex and emotional, and in this case also highly memorable. The audience is invited to invest heavily in the lives of its two protagonists, an achievement not all shows can boast. The series will surely resonate with many – as the novel has done in no small amount – for its heartfelt realness. Best of all, it earns the mournful yet confident ending.