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11.05.2020- On the beauty of Normal People

Monday, 11 May 2020


I'm a solid believer in serendipity and have been for as long as I can remember, but the fact that BBC Three's adaptation of Normal People made it on to our screens amidst the lockdown feels like a miracle. Not only has the timing of the release seen it rocket to the top of the iPlayer's 'Most Watched' chart, but it's also racked up a mammoth 16 million streaming requests for far- a number which looks likely to continue to grow. It's also been the perfect comfort blanket programme to watch over the last few weeks (or days, depending on how quickly you sped through it), not least because the pacing is so perfect- allowing us to really get to know each of the characters and utterly empathise and identify with their experiences. 

I read Sally Rooney's novel about eighteenth months or so ago, funnily enough just before a trip to Galway with some of my best pals. If I'm honest, I didn't love the book as much as all of the hype had me expecting to- I remember finding Marianne a really cold and distant character on the page, but at the same time completely identifying with Connell and his experience of struggling to open up, and more specifically to fit in at university. To that end, I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't really sure whether the tv adaptation was something I really needed in my life- especially when I could rewatch [insert period drama title here] for the [insert number higher than tenth] time. 

Well, reader, I was wrong. After seeing some excellent reviews, I watched episode one a few weeks ago and was completely hooked. All of my misgivings about the characters and the storyline melted away within the first five minutes, and this is in no small part due to the absolutely phenomenal performances of the two leads. As Marianne and Connell, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal are perfect- with Edgar-Jones capturing Marianne's vulnerability from the outset, and, with the most subtle of hints- making the character much more human than I found her in the book, and in turn her various different experiences of life through adolescence and young adulthood all the more painful. There's nothing which I can say about Paul Mescal's performance which hasn't been said much better a thousand times already, but again it's difficult to remember a performance which feels more natural, and, perhaps most importantly, he's captures Connell's complete vulnerability in a way which is truly remarkable. It'll come as no surprise that I was crying through almost every episode, but Connell's breakdown in particular deserves so much praise, particularly for shining a light on young male mental health in a sensitive, completely non-judgmental way. 

There's a lot to be commended in how each episode is paced and shot too. With directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald paying fond attention to the smallest of details- even something as everyday as making a cup of tea is afforded the same cinematic currency as a scene packed with dialogue. The sex scenes are realistic and never feel gratuitous, thanks in no small part to the work of intimacy co-ordinator Ita O'Brien. The thing which also really struck me as I was watching was just how much attention was paid to making each scene feel real- so much so that that we completely believe in and invest in the narrative, the characters and their experiences, without even questioning whether what we're watching is real or not. The beauty of the way that this programme is directed is that everything is completely naturalistic- even down to the excruciating arguments or family rows- like in real life, the camera doesn't turn away from difficult, hard-hitting moments of emotion, whether that's Connell visiting a therapist or Marianne's tricky relationship with her family. 

There's a lot to be said about the sense of nostalgia which Normal People encapsulates too. Now, perhaps more than ever before, we're finding ourselves drawn to things which are familiar and remind us of life as it used to be. With the adaptation of Connell and Marianne's story, we put ourselves in their shoes at the critical narrative junctures depicted on screen: first boyfriend/girlfriend, going to university and dealing with everything that life throws at us along the way. As the title suggests, there's an element of universality about their experiences and those of their friends (I am a total Joanna, just for the record), which allows us to identify with and care about the characters on screen. This, combined with sensitive writing, considered direction and brilliant, natural performances make Normal People something very special indeed, and something which is particularly resonant just at the moment, as we all grapple with relationships and life setbacks. 

Have you been watching Normal People?

(Image credit: BBC, please do not reproduce without permission.)

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