(Warning: Spoilers for both Normal People the series, and I would assume the novel.)
I picked up Sally Rooney’s novel “Normal People” in 2018, and bounced off it. The clash was stylistic. Her prose is formatted in this unusual staccato of short paragraphs, shuttling time frames and the complete absence of quotation marks that made it difficult to get into the novel. I understood that the acclaim could not be misplaced, but I chalked it up as basic incompatibility between myself and the author and abandoned it after maybe 30 pages.
Fast forward to 2020. It’s a very different world. Stuck at home and struggling with my own novel, I’m pairing writing sessions with various media to distract my attention when I’m getting bogged down. Hoping that the transition to a visual medium would bridge my sensibilities with the material, I added the new BBC/Hulu production of Normal People to my list. Executive Producer Lenny Abrahamson directed (and was nominated for the Oscar) the 2015 novel adaptation Room, earning Captain Brie Larson her Academy Award. That was a harrowing movie. He’d also direct part of the series, and he’s Irish. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be as mediocre (or bad) as the flood of original teenage-centered content proliferating on Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services.
Now that I’ve seen all twelve 30-minute episodes, I’m happy to report that my fears were unfounded. Normal People the series is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on “television”.
The visuals are spectacular. The DPs outdid themselves. And Abrahamson delivered, crafting a look, feel and style that fans of Room will be able to connect to that film. The other director, Hettfie MacDonald, aligned her episodes’ elements with Abrahamson’s and brought her own masterful touch to perhaps the weightier half of the show. I’ll also give top marks to the editing and production design. Technically, this show can go toe-to-toe with anything out there.
The two relatively unknown leads are spectacular. The term “chemistry” always gets thrown around when actors are paired for a love story. These two have it, so I guess congratulations are due for the casting directors as well. Paul Mescal delivers a singular performance as the male lead. But as these things go, it’s the female lead, Daisy Edgar-Jones, that’s going to (unfairly) get a lot of the press. Mescal is a rugged-looking actor that delivered one of the most sensitive and vulnerable male performances I’ve seen. Edgar-Jones, who looks like a Gen Z hybrid of Anne Hathaway and Dakota Johnson (yes, the bangs her character wears throughout the series is part of it), keeps pace with him and then some. Her face is so expressive that they pared down dialogue lifted from the book, instead allowing the actress to deliver the thoughts with her eyes. This is Jennifer Lawrence-caliber talent.
The story isn’t unusual, a coming-of-age tale of two star-crossed lovers who can’t help but keep sabotaging themselves time and again, mostly due to poor communication. Both are written as book-smart (each earns a scholarship at university in their own fields) with different core mental health challenges. Mescal’s character Connell Waldron is an Irish boy with social and verbal communication issues, offset by a talent for the written word and a supportive family. Edgar-Jones’s character, Marianne Sheridan, is a confident outcast carrying emotional damage from domestic abuse (inflicted by her entire family and a lot of other people, including Connell), which bleeds into her sexual identity. There’s very little plot here, and we’re asked to suspend disbelief that two intelligent characters spend almost the entirety of the series fumbling observation, sensitivity and communication when it comes to each other. The performances of the two leads enable the viewer to do just that.
Fans swear by the dialogue written by Rooney, for its authenticity. Same for the sex scenes. On the screen, it falls to the actors and the director to deliver on the reputation of the written text. The author can rest easy, as they’ve done a bang-up job. One of both of the leads are on screen for the entirety of the show, and their interactions with each other and with the supporting cast carry the gravity of their characters’ history and experience.
Much has been made of the sex depicted, and Edgar-Jones has the harder job here, needing to venture into Marianne’s BDSM experimentations both physically and verbally. I will agree for the most part that every sex scene carries something new in service of the story or the characters, as Marianne and Paul yo-yo between each other and different sexual partners. (They get into exclusive relationships with others, but almost never describe themselves as exclusive when they’re together.) The sex runs the full spectrum, from tender to harrowing, and is never meant to be titillating. There’s so much emotional baggage in every tryst that if you’re along for the ride, you can’t ignore it.
I was also impressed that Abrahamson identified the work of photographer Nan Goldin as his reference for shooting the nudity. I would translate that as: we’re not showing you the actors’ naughty bits to get a rise out of you; you’re watching two people having emotionally-charged sex with a truckload of intention behind it. It would be stupid for, say, the actress to keep a bra on. Or to never see the man’s dick.
Case in point. The most hard-to-watch sex depicted in the series, to me, is four seconds of Marianne being fucked from behind by her sadist boyfriend. She’s fully clothed, you don’t see her breasts unlike pretty much every other sex scene she’s in. You see her face, and her partner’s hand gripping her hair and yanking hard. This was set up in a prior scene by Marianne telling Connell that her new beau likes to slap her around and use a belt on her, and that she “was into it”. After watching Marianne give Connell her virginity in a much-lauded first time scene full of tenderness and sensitivity, seeing her expression while being treated like that (with her consent) is like a gut punch. For extra credit, you can assume that she was taking it in the ass. After all, she seems to tell her partners “you can do anything you want to me”. Remembering and connecting details about the characters in this show isn’t pretty.
And yes, in the end they land the plane. The final episode is the “feel good” one, where the story (for now) comes to an end. It’s not closed, and there’s no real certainty, but the viewer is rewarded with seeing the characters finally overcoming their own flaws and being able to see a future together in some capacity, at least for the moment.
I don’t know what kind of criteria the Emmys and the BAFTAs will adopt in the time of Covid-19, but it would be a travesty if Normal People the Series wasn’t lauded with some nominations. Mescal and Edgar-Jones are very young, and for both this is their first lead role. But both are deserving, as is the show itself. With the profile of the series elevated by the celebrity status of the noval and source material author, especially in the UK, there is hope for recognition.
I’m giving the novel another shot. I’m pretty sure now that the BBC series stands on its own, and the work that the cast and crew put into it may just get me past the lack of quotation marks this time. It’s a non-zero chance.