Culture

Television

A lot to be desired: ‘Normal People’

By Craig Mathieson
The screen adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel is a piercing portrayal of young lovers

Normal People. Photograph courtesy of Stan

Repeatedly in Normal People – the bracing and bittersweet adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 bestseller – one of the two central characters will come to greet the other at their front door. Whichever of these young and intermittent Irish lovers the camera is focused on will pause for a few seconds beforehand, but it’s unclear whether they’re savouring the looming moment of connection or nervous at what might eventuate. That mix of desire and unease, told through the alchemy of two deeply connected but complex personalities, underpins this exceptional series.

First seen as high-school students preparing for final exams in County Sligo, in Ireland’s north-west, Marianne Sheridan (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) initially resemble adolescent archetypes, their banal school uniforms mocking their looming adulthood. He’s handsome and popular, with a circle of friends, while she’s a loner with a combative attitude and a family mansion to define her. But in this BBC/Hulu co-production, streaming in Australia on Stan, the two can barely be in the same space without a current running between them. That spark soon extends to a sexual relationship – which they keep secret at Marianne’s suggestion and to Connell’s relief – and they make the wondrous discovery that they can talk to each other in ways neither has previously known.

Coming-of-age stories are often focused on what the protagonists acquire: knowledge, experience and wisdom. But these 12 half-hour episodes – a format that here feels vividly compressed, akin to a potent memory – pay attention to the negative spaces that never dissipate. Connell is anxious and sometimes afraid to act, a state exacerbated by moving to Dublin to study at Trinity College, where he and Marianne try “the friendship thing”. Meanwhile, she struggles to take satisfaction in other people’s faith in her, and amplifies a submissive quality that was established during childhood with her icy family. Burdens aren’t banished, they’re just pushed down until they rear up again.

Skipping back and forth in the narrative, so that a break-up is seen before the build-up to it, the show is mostly faithful to Rooney’s text. Interior realisations are recast as dialogue, but little extra is invented (Rooney co-wrote the first six episodes). The world of Normal People is only complete (and never more emotionally complex) than when Marianne and Connell are together, but their conversations can be plaintive and even awkward. The direction, from Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and English television veteran Hettie Macdonald, can’t help but amplify the attraction between Marianne and Connell, which is further fostered by the actors’ chemistry. The many sex scenes are never gratuitous, and the characters share in them in ways that are both revelatory and vulnerable.

The undercurrents of privilege and opportunity that Rooney coolly drives home on the page also rise to the surface of this adaptation; it’s only when Connell earns a valuable scholarship that he realises money is “the substance that makes the world real”. Whether together or apart, both Marianne and Connell are perplexed by how they’re watching their lives take shape. For them, growing up and being in love evoke an inexplicable sensation, but on screen it is a piercing and melancholic experience.

 

Streaming successes: The Last Dance (Netflix) is a juicy sports documentary series that, using archival evidence and unvarnished commentary, dissects the iconic but misconstrued career of basketball’s greatest player, Michael Jordan, through the lens of his final championship-chasing season with the 1998 Chicago Bulls; High Fidelity (ABC iView) is a reboot that slowly fosters its own identity, replacing John Cusack from the 2000 movie with Zoe Kravitz in a hangout comedy about romantic missteps; and the interconnected science-fiction anthology Tales from the Loop (Amazon Prime Video) is a solemn selection of what-if scenarios inspired by the work of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag.

Streaming misses: Hit producer Ryan Murphy’s new misfire, Hollywood (Netflix), is a farcical fantasia that uses historic figures, fictional examples of diverse representation and shallow analysis to rewrite the history of the movie business in post–World War Two Los Angeles; and Reprisal (SBS On Demand) is a blood-soaked American tale of a woman’s revenge against the criminal gang that left her for dead, but it’s overegged by a relentlessly stylised approach.

Return seasons: There’s a second season available of Dead to Me (Netflix), a sharp dissection of female friendship and the anger that percolates through grief, starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini; the shell games and wealth porn of Billions (Stan), with Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis as duelling masters of the universe, has a fifth season unfolding via weekly episodes; and both seasons of the gripping parallel-worlds thriller Counterpart are now on Amazon Prime Video, after being unavailable for more than a year following the show’s debut on SBS On Demand.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

Normal People. Photograph courtesy of Stan

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