The Beauty of Normal People
Sofia Galucci-Giles dives into the joys of new adapted series ‘Normal People’.
It’s undeniable that the long-awaited TV adaptation of Normal People had a lot to live up to. Novelist Sally Rooney has had a somewhat dream-like career aged only 29. Partnering up with Mark Rowe and (in my opinion frankly brilliant) playwright Alice Birch, this series does not disappoint in its adaptation of Sally Rooney’s coming of age teen romance novel. The series so far has garnered critical praise across Britain and the US – Connell’s necklace that he wears even has its own Instagram account. The Normal People series is an effortlessly moving portrayal of first love, giving it the respect and significance that it deserves in shaping an individual.
Set in Ireland, Normal People follows Marianne and Connell weaving in and out of each other’s lives throughout school and university, oscillating between lovers, friends and strangers. Though the effortlessly charming Connell may trump abrupt and cold Marianne within the parameters of their school corridors, this hierarchy inevitably changes once they reach university. The two unlikely school lovers embark on a messy, secret love affair that uncontrollably makes its entrances and exits throughout their university life.
It’s taken me a few days after finishing the series to cohesively gather my thoughts and write this review. It was only in January that I wrote a piece on the novel for Exeposé. What is truly central to this story is the evocation to teenage experiences that shape an individual’s relationship to love itself. The fluctuating currency of class, intimacy, vulnerability and beauty determines the power that Marianne and Connell have over one another. As someone who has adored Normal People for the exposing yet authentic piece of literature that it is, this series has succeeded remarkably.
The Normal People series is an effortlessly moving portrayal of first love, giving it the respect and significance that it deserves in shaping an individual.
What is so striking about this adaptation is how unpatronizing it is. Where teen dramas tend to have a cliched stigma attached to them, Normal People is brilliant in taking everything very seriously and giving its subject matter the respect that it deserves. This is of course, largely due to the phenomenal performances given by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. For two young actors at the beginning of their careers, their commitment and sincerity to character is astounding. Edgar-Jones gives a complex interrogation into the character, and also notably puts on a brilliant Sligo accent. Credit must be given to Mescal’s evolution of Connell and the raw honesty of his performance, particularly in scenes that gives topics such as male mental health a necessary platform.
Yet, what makes these two so unbelievably perfect for the role is that their sexual chemistry is unreal. This leads me perfectly to praise Normal People for what are quite possible some of the most relevant sex scenes on British television in a long time. Marianne is a virgin. Connell is not. Their first time together does not shy away from the intricacies of how it is. In fact, none of the particularly long sex scenes in Normal People do. The tenderness that comes with the intimate interlocking of their naked bodies becomes a signature facet to Connell and Marianne’s relationship, yet its truthfulness makes it particularly effective.
Though these scenes have been highly praised for their portrayal of consent, naturally their explicit nature has probed criticism surrounding suggested exploitation. I had a really interesting conversation with a friend about this, who expressed that Connell isn’t completely the good guy. I’d agree with this, however, knowing the book so well I’d say that this is exactly the point. Connell doesn’t get everything right, but does anyone? The novel focuses on how each character is flawed in some way and how each of them, though some better than the other, try to figure it out and grow. I think by referring to Connell as abusive defeats the point of storylines such as Rob’s and loses the meaning of how ugly growing up can be.
It’s also easy to interpret the series as just about sex. I think, however, to interpret it in this way misses the point of it. To concentrate merely on the sex removes the power behind scenes of Connell on facetime to Marianne, who is essentially his lifeline, whilst he sleeps or his intervention in Marianne and Jamie’s relationship whilst in Italy. All of these scenes collectively serve to demonstrate how significant interactions and experiences with other humans can be. Throughout the entire show, the soundtrack must be credited for perfectly complementing the action in a subtle and nuanced way. From Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide and Seek’ to the beautifully ambivalent original score composed by Stephen Rennicks, the music underscores the picture to match the directorial aesthetic brilliantly.
Yet, the beauty of the show relies on an equilibrium of the chemistry between Connell and Marianne and the superb direction of Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie MacDonald. Their directorial aesthetics in this series is quite unique and perfectly matches the vignette quality of the novel. There is a beautiful looseness to the aesthetics where long single shots and close ups create a unique intimacy and quality that I was initially worried a motion picture would lose from the novel.
Stylistically, I think this is also immensely powerful in the scene where we see Connell in the counsellor’s office. Filmed very close to his face, Mescal gives a heart-breaking performance that is completely unfiltered. What I find interesting is that Mescal keeps his head down for pretty much the entire time in this scene. There is something so unapologetic about it. The silence and space in the landscape that this series creates simply nurtures how truly authentic and real to life it is.
Beyond just the direction, the dialogue is realistic and unfiltered with irresistible intimacy. This allows for it to flow seamlessly into a moving silence; the verbal into the physical. Being an English student, I will always be biased in saying books are better than the motion picture, however this adaptation headed up by Rowe, Rooney and Birch is executed brilliantly and remains very close to the novel. It does the imagery in Rooney’s literature a beautiful justice. Whether it be a silhouette of the pair in bed, or a figure reflected in a swimming pool, these small seemingly pointless vignettes with only stylistic purpose, turn out to mean everything for character and plot development that the novel captures.
The silence and space in the landscape that this series creates simply nurtures how truly authentic and real to life it is.
Despite this, there are some aspects of the series that I really wish were developed more. The figure of Marianne’s mother could hold a lot more weight and have developed Marianne’s behaviour. There is an incredibly raw moment later on in the series where Marianne turns around to Connell saying ‘I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong when I was born’. Though Marianne’s relationship with her family is primarily communicated through her conversations with Connell, I think there could be something quite complicated about exploring that relationship further.
Likewise, the storyline of Connell and his English teacher had a lot of opportunity to discuss something quite unique and what would have been very powerful. Despite this, I think overall the adaptation of Connell is particularly effective. Within the novel, he doesn’t actually say a lot. Yet, the novel’s internal monologue of Connell is interpreted on screen to the credit of Mescal’s subtle acting and some beautiful lines in the script that depict him struggling. ‘I feel like I’m walking around trying on a hundred different versions of myself’; he explains. His speech isn’t cluttered but is uncensored and refreshingly authentic to the original novel. Both the script and cinematography work beautifully in the latter half of the series, where a large majority of the internal monologues from the book are relayed through voice over emails to eachother. These emails are rich in Rooney’s imagery and give each character such a personal complexity.
Between their encounters, Connell and Marianne date a range of other people, from the sweet Helen to controlling Jamie. This is where the real lesson in what appears to be just silly university relationships have the power to significantly shape a person. As in the book, Marianne in particular has a series of abusive relationships where a thin line between being abused or just having a fetish exists. Again, this is the first time I’ve seen fetishes even remotely recognised to this extent on television. Though this has naturally attracted some criticism, I think it simply highlights the lack of education surrounding fetishes and more complex abusive relationships.
Although it suggests that Marianne might initially enjoy some of the adventurous sex and relationships she has, the line quickly crosses into emotional and physical abuse that we heartbreakingly see Marianne fail to recognise with multiple different partners. At its most striking, there’s a standout line of ‘I pretend to feel a certain way, like I’m in his power’. It simply returns to this notion of a fluctuating power currency that runs through the entire story. Its effect is astounding; for not only opening a wider discussion surrounding consent for younger audiences, but also for debunking the myth that teen dramas have to be patronising or clichéd.
Throughout Normal People, as a young adult watching it, I see some of the characters in people in my own life and I think that’s quite common people for a lot of people watching it. Normal People is incredibly reflective of modern friendship and love, what it’s like to be a young adult now and to be constantly contending with patronising attitudes towards the relationships that shape us most. It could make me feel exposed but moved, happy but sad, angry yet captivated. The show eliminates any romantic solipsism and provides a truly respectful platform to the intensity and agony of wrangling with love for the first time. It left me wanting to live more and love harder.