'Normal People' Is A Love Story To Cherish
It's a blessing to meet very special people when you're young and dumb. You'll get older either way, but without them, without how hard you will try to deserve them, how will you ever get less dumb?
Of course, on the other hand, as you make and probably break your bonds with them, you will still be dumb, and you will still be young. Your odds of making a mistake with them are high. Perhaps that's why so many of us lose some of those relationships in time. Not the ones that are casual and simple, but the ones with people who break us open in the best ways but also cut themselves on our rough edges and bump their heads on our limitations. The ones where we do the same in return.
Sally Rooney's 2018 novel, Normal People, is about one of those relationships, the ones where we hurt and we get hurt and we try, perhaps unwisely, to hang on. And Hulu has made a genuinely beautiful 12-part adaptation, all of which is available Wednesday, April 29.
When we meet them, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) attend the same high school in Ireland, but they have a complicated, crosswise dynamic. On one hand, Connell's mother works for Marianne's mother as a house cleaner. But on the other, he's good-looking and popular. He's one of those high school boys who is understood to be the nicest one in a group of adolescent jackasses, always acting a tiny bit embarrassed by his friends, but never quite telling them to knock off their various acts of jackassery. She, meanwhile, is smart and opinionated, the kind of girl around whom a generally accepted lore of plainness flourishes even though she is, objectively, beautiful. Her mother's status is above his mother's, but for them to be seen together would be bad for his standing, not hers.
One day, quietly, they decide that they like each other, and they make a plan to have sex, and then they do. It isn't a declared romance; in fact, it's a secret, which is his idea. But it is good sex by high school standards, and they are good company to each other. And she doesn't want, for a number of reasons, to tell him it hurts that he doesn't acknowledge her at school. She wants to go along, and say it's all right, and sometimes it really is all right.
The first real sign of their closeness is the depth of the wound they both eventually realize he's inflicted by assuming she understands why he doesn't want anyone to know he's sleeping with her. And so we stay with them, sometimes apart but mostly together, for the rest of high school, and through college. We stay as they separate and reunite over and over, sometimes as friends and sometimes romantically, sometimes while he's involved with someone else, or she is, or they both are.
That's a love story. Not in the linear sense, where the idea is to see how where the shuffling will end — with them together or apart, or getting married to each other, or to others. It's a love story in that it's a story about love, maybe even a study of it. It's a chronicle of how that love takes a variety of forms and affects people deeply, sometimes in unexpected ways. And it doesn't have an ending, strictly speaking, because that's the kind of love it is.
The series lives almost entirely within this relationship; while there are other people around, they're really present as the growth medium for the relationship between Marianne and Connell, and to be the subjects it acts upon. There are interludes spent primarily with one of them — with him in particular — but most of the time, we are with the two of them, and so much of the time, we are with only the two of them.
It's hard to remember a 12-part series that has relied this heavily on scenes between two people, often in barely decorated, naturally lit gray-white bedrooms or quiet corners away from social gatherings. These two actors, Edgar-Jones and Mescal, both have the vulnerability it takes to maintain confidence in the depth of feeling that sustains the relationship. And they've both figured out how to put a particular warmth in their eyes when they're able to find those connected moments, like a light that flips on, and of course they'd keep chasing that feeling. Of course they would.
The first six episodes were directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who made the quite spare film Room and the last six by Hettie Macdonald, who's worked in television for years on projects including Doctor Who and the lush BBC/Starz adaptation of Howards End. These directors, together with cinematographers Suzie Lavelle and Kate McCullough, create a visual style for all this conversation that literally reframes the relationship over and over again. Here, they are lying in bed looking at the ceiling; there, they are each isolated in the center of the frame staring almost directly into the camera as they face each other at a cafe while they are relatively estranged. In another scene, their communication struggles, and they find themselves trapped along the "wrong" side of the shot, talking to the edge of what we can see.
What you get in these conversations is tremendous physical detail: eyelids fluttering, bits of sweat or tears, a hand extending down from a bed to set down a half-finished popsicle on its wrapper. And sex, too, shown with a similar level of care. It's notable that the sex scenes in Normal People are ... well, the word "explicit" and the word "graphic" both seem vulgar, like there's something being done for shock value. And the word "frank" makes sex scenes sound like a teaching moment. But from the first time they have sex at his house, it's sex that seems particular to these people in this situation — it feels like a sex scene that could only be about them.
There's also, throughout the episodes, a welcome choice to show the parts of sex that often are ignored in your usual foggy network-friendly montage. Traditional sex scenes will often ignore how people actually take their clothes off, somewhat awkwardly and interruptingly; how they navigate and negotiate and then fall silent; how they don't usually just kiss passionately and then wake up naked. One of the problems with sex scenes being heavily censored is that they become generic, in the same way your sentences would if you only had 15 words to work with. A greater freedom, in a show like this that's being made thoughtfully, is actually likely to result in sex scenes that seem more like they have a reason to be there; more like they're adding something to the story. More like they're needed. There's a respect here for the importance of physicality to the bond that Connell and Marianne have, not because their relationship is purely or even primarily about sex, but because it's one of the ways they return to each other again and again, a little differently each time as they get older.
Rooney worked on this adaptation herself, along with writers Alice Birch (Succession) and Mark O'Rowe. It stubbornly resists traditional structures of conflict and resolution, bumping along through several years of this relationship without ever suggesting it's headed for something neatly wrapped up. That doesn't mean it's not satisfying; it's immensely satisfying. But the story, really, is about what people do with all this pain they've inflicted on each other and all this beautiful history they have together when neither of those things seem possible to set aside.
It's a lovely series, not just to binge, but perhaps to dole out to yourself a couple of episodes at a time. It's also the kind of project that looks easy to do well but emphatically isn't. And for audiences who may be mostly new to both of these actors — she's appeared here and there; he is a stunning talent for someone who is genuinely just starting out in television — it's a treat to see them work so well together. An example of a hotly anticipated show that actually has managed to live up to the hopes so many had for it, Normal People is your next very Irish, very emotional watch.