Not just an adaptation of one of the best-selling novels of the last few years, Normal People is also the last BBC drama to finish production before the lockdown started. Written by the darling of the literary world and directed by an Oscar nominee, the stakes for this series are very high indeed.
For anyone who’s read the book, this is the kind of story that you probably don’t want to see adapted in the first place. The tale of two Irish kids who meet at school and fall in and out of love throughout uni, Sally Rooney’s blockbuster is a beautifully written romance – a modern day Victorian novel that deals in longing, introspection and awkward sex scenes – exactly the sort of thing that could get turned into a really shitty teen soap.
Thankfully, fans of the book can relax. Written by Rooney herself alongside screenwriter Alice Birch (Succession), and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room), Normal People is every bit as good an adaptation as it deserves.
We meet Connell (newcomer Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones, from ITV dramedy Cold Feet) in the last year of school. He’s popular and smart but he’s also shy – running with a group of idiot mates who he thinks he has to impress. She’s even smarter but nobody likes her – something she doesn’t help by acting arrogant and snappy. Class boundaries blur the social lines too, with Connell’s mum working as a cleaner for Marianne’s rich family, and both kids seemingly coming from completely different worlds within the same rural town in Sligo, Ireland.
Drawn together by a vague love of books, the pair start seeing each other – but only if she agrees to keep it a secret. By the time Connell realises that he loves her, and by the time we all realise just how vulnerable she really is, he’s already caused enough damage by choosing his dumb friends over her fragile feelings. From episode four onwards, the drama moves to Trinity College in Dublin and we watch the roles start reversing – Marianne growing into her independence as Connell gets cast further adrift, ever haunted by feelings of guilt.
Bringing the same attention to emotion that earned him an Oscar nod in 2015 for Room, Abrahamson makes all the right decisions with Rooney’s script – avoiding the usual teen traps with stillness and sensitivity. It might sound like a Hollyoaks jaunt on paper, but Normal People couldn’t be further from froth – a swooning, slow-burning drama that lingers in the gloomiest corners, embraces the silence and likes to end episodes on Elliott Smith songs.
It might be a show about millennials, but this is really only ever about two of them – letting school, college, parties and the rest of the world slip into soft focus behind them. Mescal is perfectly cast as the quietly broken jock, Connell, but it’s hard to steal any light from Edgar-Jones – owning every scene she’s in as Marianne with smart subtlety that wrings every bit of nuance from the character on the page.
Running over six hours across 12 episodes, Normal People is a single relationship written large in tiny details – and both actors do a great job of keeping the focus narrowed down to the smallest flickers of love, pain and regret. What’s more, it’s the chemistry between Mescal and Edgar-Jones that mostly manages to keep the show from sinking too deep into melancholia. For all its raw emotion and underlying sadness, this is a heartfelt love story that radiates warmth from the very start.
Expectations might be high, but no one needs to worry. If this really is the only BBC drama we get this year, at least it’s a good one.
- Director: Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie McDonald
- Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal, Sarah Greene
- Release date: 26 April 2020 (BBC Three)
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