The story of two teenagers falling in love and maintaining an on-off relationship over a number of years doesn’t sound particularly fresh. What’s that? Their affair bridges a class divide? Mental illness and familial abuse are amongst the issues dealt with? At first glance, the themes included within Normal People might seem interesting if a little clichéd within the tele-sphere.
Look closer. Save for an episode set in an Italian villa which has clearly taken inspiration from Call Me By Your Name, there is nothing derivative about Normal People. Based on the best-selling and critically lauded (a rarer fusion than one might think) novel by Sally Rooney, this BBC programme is the most realistic and moving look at relationships in recent televisual memory.
We begin with Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) at school together in County Sligo. She is the rich girl living in the big house; his mother works as a cleaner in that same house. Any audience expectations of where this is going, however, are quickly shot through as we see their contrasting experiences of school. Marianne – clever, argumentative and abrasive – is isolated and teased, while sporty, affable Connell coasts through the locker-lined jungle without any hardship. When they start seeing one another, he seeks to hide the relationship, fearful of what his cooler friends might think, and horribly mistreats her in the process.
Normal People then follows the pair as they leave school and proceed to Trinity College Dublin. At university, the qualities for which Marianne was vilified at school mark her out as brilliant, and she thrives as Connell struggles to find his place. Their maturation, entwined and divergent, plays out in front of us and is entirely convincing, even if the 24-year-old Mescal isn’t immediately believable in a school uniform. The chemistry between him and Edgar-Jones is astonishing, and both actors, relative novices to the profession, display a rare ability to convey complex moods and feelings within a single glance.
Those glances appear regularly, substituted in for the words both characters cannot find. For all its uplifting moments, Normal People is a quiet tragedy of misunderstanding and miscommunication. Connell, whose responses fall somewhere between taciturn and monosyllabic, is a particularly Prufrockian figure, who finds it impossible to say just what he means.
One way in which Connell and Marianne reach communion is through sex, and much has been made of the programme’s use of nudity, not to mention its employment of an ‘intimacy coordinator’ to make sure the scenes were true to life and comfortable for the actors involved. There are depictions of sex throughout the twelve episodes of Normal People, and though some of the later examples fall victim to screen conventions of atmospheric lighting and slow-motion montage, the love scenes of the first few episodes are triumphantly authentic. Hesitant breaths are forensically amplified, while the struggle of undressing and the use of laughter to fill an awkward silence provide welcome respite to glossy Hollywood treatments of desire. The scene in which Marianne loses her virginity lasts just under ten minutes, a third of the episode’s length, but is neither titillating nor unbearable, only strangely touching. Without being didactic, it contains more useful information about consent than any educational video.
Any critical focus on the sexual dimension of Normal People is far from voyeuristic, given it is such a vital part of the show. As they repeatedly drift apart from one another, the characters find new partners, and the unsuitability of these matches is illustrated through further depictions of physical intimacy, particularly in Marianne’s case. She goes out with the red-trousered Gareth, who can only offer dispassionate missionary sex where no eye contact is held. He is followed in her affections by the unsettlingly possessive Jamie, who uses masochistic intercourse to mask his insecurities, and the outright abusive Lukas. None of this is a problem when she is with Connell.
It is hard to remember a show in the last couple of years which feels as quietly cinematic as Normal People, whose style is worn lightly and backed up by substance. Camera angles are used subtly to capture shifting perspectives, wide-angle shots mixed effortlessly with unflinching close-ups. Translating the free indirect speech of Rooney’s novel into television could have posed a problem, but the programme converts these thoughts into sequences of dialogue which never feel forced. Considering that the author has been repeatedly, and tediously, acclaimed as ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’, Normal People is thrillingly atemporal in its disregard for social media interaction. There are a couple of mentions of Facebook; Marianne and Connell exchange the odd email and chat over FaceTime; otherwise they just talk.
The decision to divide the series into half-hour rather than hour-long instalments is effective, as the viewer is given tantalising glimpses of the couple’s relationship. There are gaps, jumps in time, occasional questions left unanswered, right up until Normal People’s hopeful but uncertain conclusion. This, for lack of a better word, episodic approach is sublime, where a more linear, exhaustive treatment might have tested our patience.
The first six episodes are co-written by Rooney herself, and largely feel more groundbreaking, perhaps because of the author’s more direct inclusion or perhaps thanks to the direction of the Oscar-nominated Lenny Abrahamson. The other six, still brilliantly poignant in the hands of director Hettie Macdonald, can occasionally lean on more familiar TV tropes. Still, the presentation of depression in the latter half of the series is carried out sensitively, but never evasively or euphemistically. In happier times, those three words, ‘I love you’, are not carelessly thrown around but deployed sparingly, so that when they are heard they are suffused with conviction, loaded and weightless.
Maybe it’s an unfortunate choice of expression, but Normal People feels like a seminal piece of television. It will be a point of comparison for all future dramas about young love, and it is unlikely to be topped any time soon. In its thorough, urgent look at sexuality, it will influence the way we think about relationships, and comes closer to capturing the teenage and young adult experience than any other contemporary series. With impeccable acting, sharp writing and inspired direction, Normal People is a thought-provoking, touching and visually striking adaptation. In a word, it is stunning.
Image: Matpib via CCO