The television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” is bristling with tension, and is one of the most engaging and captivating tales of romance and maturation.
Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal
Normal People is an ode to first love. Told over 12 episodes, the true glory of the central love story is the ability to watch it develop and grow as the characters age and realise who they are both separately and together. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) start their relationship with a sort of Romeo and Juliet dynamic, owing to the contrast in their familial wealth and respective popularities. As the series evolves, the pair remain the beating heart of the show.
The on-off romance begins in a small Irish town where our two characters meet at school. Marianne, endowed with incredible ferocity, not just physically but intellectually, isolates herself and finds herself alienated from her peers as a result of her wealth. Meanwhile, attractive and charming Connell is massively popular, though with that social approval becomes a massive internal pressure. He is significantly less wealthy than Marianne, and his mother cleans her house. This division of status constantly hums in the background of the pair’s interactions. Like Marianne, Connell is incredibly intelligent, but lacks the confidence and self-assurance that she wraps herself in. Almost inevitably, the keen minds spark an attraction, and they soon fall for each other, though Connell insists their relationship remain a secret.
As the pair grow, we see the fortunes of the pair shift with their surroundings, as they are transplanted to Trinity College. Marianne, previously isolated from her peers, soon finds that her incredibly intelligence attracts others to her without effort. Meanwhile, Connell, though more advanced than his peers at school, soon finds himself in a location where his previously effortless charm is ineffective and is unable to connect with the upper middle-class students at university.
The long form story telling allows us to check in with our characters at multiple key points throughout their history, allowing greater and more purposeful growth than an ongoing series. As she ages, we see Marianne’s buried trauma surface itself in a spate of masochism, pushing herself into submissive roles with a powerful intensity, as she almost goads those around her not to love her, all from the powerful internal sense that she cannot be loved. She is always pushed forwards by her independence and tenacity, while we see Connell remain more static. Connell’s desire to please people and to be accepted means that he skates by with a sort of breezy inoffensiveness. He finds him paralysed and unable to make a decision, unsure of who he is and unable to connect to others in the same way that he can to Marianne.
Throughout the whole tale, you always get the sense of the pair spiralling away from each other then hurtling back on a collision course. Despite those that surround them, the two are clearly cut from the same cloth, drawn together like two poles of a magnet. Both fiercely insular and thoughtful, the pair find themselves only able to fully shed their armour within each other’s company.
One of the key strengths of Normal People is the way that every moment and interaction seems purposeful. This is hardly surprising considering that Sally Rooney, who wrote the novel, worked extensively on adapting it for TV along with Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe. Yet, watching through it, it almost appears to be swimming in and out of Marianne and Connell’s lives at seemingly random, obscure moments: the sorts of conversations that you don’t realise are incredibly significant until long, long afterwards. Bleary summer afternoons spent talking, or not talking, in each other’s bedrooms, inhabiting the spaces where you used to be completely different people in.
Not only is each word important and carefully chosen, intentionally revealing masses about each character, but there’s also much to be said about the silences. Normal People is in afraid to allow moments to percolate and sit, trusting in the captivating performances given by Edgar-Jones and Mescal. Within each pregnant pause, you can see an interior monologue rattling around both protagonist’s head, as key pieces of information skirt around their tongues, almost like a dance of daring; seeing whether either of them are willing to actually say what they mean. The entire 12-episode collection is defined by the pair desperately attempting to communicate, and critically misunderstanding the other to heartbreaking effect.
Lots has been said of the explicit sex scenes contained within Normal People, but each intimate moment is integral and emotional. Each time the pair have sex, it’s a vital moment of communication and of vulnerability, and always serves a purpose. Even when it’s frenzied, passionate and animalistic, to when it’s slow, loving and compassionate, the messages that they are sending to each other are brilliantly portrayed, thanks to the work of intimacy co-ordinator Ita O’Brien and Edgar-Jones and Mescal, who really sell the legitimacy of those moments. Even when each of the pair are having sex with somebody different, it reveals a significant part of their personality.
Normal People is unafraid to show all the aspects of the characters. It doesn’t swerve into a common romance trap of painting one of the pair as innocent and the other one as flawed, but shows how the two bounce off each other in sometimes disastrous ways. The chronicling of their relationship as it involves makes it pretty much impossible not to be invested in their story. Every moment between the pair is emotional and beautifully realised, where even moments of complete silence are utterly riveting.
The sense of bittersweet nostalgia is aided by the bleary Irish backdrop, and the quiet solemnity of feeling like you’re walking through somebody else’s past. The soundtrack only adds to this, the sweeping melodies enhancing the romance. The two-handed direction of Lenny Abrahamson and Hattie Macdonald really helps keep this tone consistent throughout.
Ultimately, Normal People is an incredible example of where writing, direction and performance come together to create something truly remarkable. The carefully crafted evolution of the characters is perfectly shown through accomplished portrayals throughout, and it’s the most nuanced and detailed coming-of-age tale out there. Both Edgar-Jones and Mescal are captivating as individuals, but practically incandescent as a pairing. Their chemistry consistently sparks, even when the characters are at odds, and they craft a truly authentic and believable bond between the pair.
Normal People is a painfully raw and honest honouring to first loves and how that connection evolves with the people involved, creating an endurable and visceral tale as the two irreparably interweave through each other’s lives.
Normal People is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.