Every work of art often has one scene or dialogue that captures its essence. BBC’s new show Normal People, adapted from Sally Rooney’s eponymous novel, is no different.
In a rare dreamy montage in an otherwise economical series, Marianne and Connell —the outcast and the school jock — cross each other on the corridor of their Irish high school, a furtive glance and half-smile the only hints of their secret relationship. “What the hell is going on…,” croons Imogen Heap ( Hide and Seek ) in the background aptly, as Marianne and Connell try to figure out just that across 12 episodes.
Marianne is frank, intelligent and intimidating, while Connell is popular and likable, the kind of guy who lets his friends copy his homework. They are not friends, they don’t even talk to each other in school. “I am conscious of the fact we got to know each other because your mother works for my family,” says Marianne at one point with the eloquence of someone well-versed in the theoretical concept of class. But for some reason, they click, and that is the beginning of an on-again, off-again relationship, woven around a thread of genuine love and friendship.
Years after the unceremonious end of their high school romance, they meet again at the prestigious Trinity College. This time, Marianne is the one at home, with her group of high-brow friends who sip wine as they discuss European art and debate Marxism from their tastefully done apartments in Dublin. Connell, meanwhile, is a struggling student, caught between the comfort of his past life in Sligo and the overwhelming present in Dublin. The only reminder of the past is the smoldering chemistry that remains unchanged.
- Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal, Sarah Greene, Aislin McGuckin, Frank Blake, Desmond Eastwood
- Direction: Lenny Abrahamson, Hettie Macdonald
- Storyline: Marianne and Connell ‘find’ each other as classmates at school, and are bound together by an inexplicable spark that refuses to fade. How does their relationship evolve as they navigate college and adulthood?
- No: of episodes: 12
Watching Normal People is an exercise in understanding the different facets of intimacy. There is no escaping the intensity of it, with the camera often zooming in on the actors until it is difficult to separate the viewer and the characters. The sex (of which there is a lot) is passionate, raw and imperfect, and wildly different from the cinematic intercourse that we are used to. There is a lot of fumbling and giggles, eagerness, and clarity of consent. “When I hear the phrase ‘sex scene,’ I think about a dialogue scene,” Rooney says in an interview, and that translates onscreen (It helps that Rooney co-wrote the screenplay with Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe). With the help of intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, each scene is a conversation, pregnant with meaning, signalling subtle shifts in the dynamics of the relationship.
All this works, of course, because Daisy Edgar-Jones (as Marianne) and Paul Mescal (a stunning debut as Connell), ever-present onscreen, make for a dream team. Jones brings a unique blend of strength and vulnerability to the table, emotions flitting on and off her face. Mescal is exceptional, nailing the transition from the popular small-town boy to an under-confident graduate at Dublin’s Trinity College. From his underlying struggle with wealth to his sense of alienation in Dublin, Connell’s character arc is safe in Mescal’s hands. Sarah Greene as Connell’s single mother and Aislín McGuckin as Denise Sheridan are memorable, as is Desmond Eastwood as Connell’s college friend Niall.
For two people who are so attuned to each other, the element of drama in Marianne’s and Connell’s relationship comes not from a grand external trouble, but the most mundane of problems: self-acceptance. They have tried being “normal” (which is what, exactly?), but it never worked out. “It is not like this with other people,” Marianne tells Connell, after they get back together in college. “I know,” he replies matter-of-factly, and you can’t help but nod in agreement.
So how does it compare to the novel? While it is a close adaptation, a pedantic reader can find cause for complaint, the most obvious of which is the tweaking of the finale and the watering down of the abuse Marianne suffers at home. That said, it isn't often that you find yourself reaching out for the book as the credits roll, eager to experience the story with this new perspective. And that, is a triumph in itself.
Normal People is currently streaming on Hulu