sat 05/12/2020

Normal People, BBC One review – adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel evokes the deep cut of first love | reviews, news & interviews

Normal People, BBC One review – adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel evokes the deep cut of first love

Normal People, BBC One review – adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel evokes the deep cut of first love

Pain, despair and rapturous joy are captured in this richly-rendered drama

On the cusp of adulthood: Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal)

Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, was a psychologically rich, emotive journey into the psyches of two Irish teenagers who fall in love. Only two years on from publication, it has been turned into a 12-part series from the BBC and Hulu. 

Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, was a psychologically rich, emotive journey into the psyches of two Irish teenagers who fall in love. Only two years on from publication, it has been turned into a 12-part series from the BBC and Hulu. 

Rooney’s plot was simple. Working-class boy Connell, who’s popular at school, catches the eye of the socially awkward rich girl Marianne, and we follow their on-off relationship from upper-sixth to university. The novel had its detractors, but for most readers the way Rooney elegantly rendered the inner lives of these fledgling adults was remarkable. It was a scalpel-sharp examination of that dramatic time of life between school and university at the cusp of adulthood. 

It wasn’t just the lovers focused upon, but the space shared between them and the richly captured dynamic of their relationship. They grow, and regress, through the lens of one another. Rooney, along with screenwriter Alice Birch, has stripped everything back. The novel’s time-hopping structure is abandoned, no doubt for cohesion in a visual format, but Connell and Marianne remain the focus of the story. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Connell and MarianneNewcomers Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones deliver near-perfect performances. Edgar-Jones captures Marianne’s fractious but resilient psyche, proving to be a smart misfit, unafraid to speak her mind. Mescal meanwhile conveys Connell’s transition from jock to comfortably embracing his intelligence, whilst always wrestling with his working-class background. 

Both actors palpably show the pain of youth, without the need for emotional fireworks. In this adaptation the drama is of the more everyday variety – normal you might say, even mundane – but oh-so-relatable. 

That’s not to say it doesn’t have moments of passion. There’s a lot of sex. Lengthy scenes capture the fumbling shyness and, shall we say, the enthusiasm of youth, depicted without a hint of exploitation in steamy yet emotionally complex scenes.

For those who can remember how deeply first love cuts, the show may stir some painful memories, particularly around the awkwardness of those early experiences. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to believe that the potent performances and rich storytelling won’t enrapture those yet to experience the messiness of those years. It would be wrong to lay the success of Normal People at the altar of nostalgia only. 

Those whose hair is now going grey and thinning will have cause to reminisce about their youth, but the real charm is in the tight script, remarkable performances and brilliant direction from Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald. The attention to detail is yet another bonus, whether it’s the carefully curated soundtrack with the likes of Imogen Heap, London Grammar and Orla Gartland, or the soft, absorbing camera work from Suzie Lavelle and Kate McCullough. 

Above all, Normal People is an open-hearted drama, brimming with optimism, pain, despair and rapturous joy. Much like the novel, this story gets under your skin, goes straight to your heart, and buries itself deep.

The real charm is in the tight script, remarkable performances and brilliant direction

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Comments

There was quite a lot of jealousy in the literary world surrounding the success of Normal People. It's strength lay in a very pared down but forensic examination of an age old subject young love and it's development. I was nervous that this would be expanded and spoiled with any adaptation for TV. Alice Birch ( a very forensic playwright herself) and Sally Rooney herself have achieved a miracle and kept the simple watchful style of the novel. The performances are faultless and the direction and camerawork unobtrusive but always focused on the right details to illuminate the developing of the central characters' relationship.. It was also a great idea to screen it in 30' episodes that gives it an epistolatory feel like a visual podcast. It's also true for those of us of a certain vintage that it brings back many memories not always welcome of our youthful fumblings and misunderstandings albeit without the help or hindrance of mobile phones.

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters