'Normal People': TV Review

Normal People Still_2 - Publicity - H 2020
Enda Bowe/Hulu
Handsome but anesthetized.

Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald directed the 12-part Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney's second novel.

Seen from a godlike perch, the stop-and-start romance that drives the new Hulu drama Normal People can seem like a cosmic joke. Against all odds, two soulmates find each other in high school, have toe-curling sex every day for several months, get into and attend the same selective college, end up in roughly the same social circles … and constantly break up, sometimes purely by accident. When they're at their lowest, or their loneliest, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) always return to one another. But they never seem to figure out how to stay together.

In the 2018 best-seller of the same name, Irish author Sally Rooney explored how a couple as seemingly perfectly matched as Marianne and Connell — who knew they were lucky to have found each other — still couldn't sustain a relationship. Beneath her bravado shivered a young woman who wondered if something inside her made her family so disdainful and her friends, when she finally made a few after high school, so fickle. And after a relatively easy adolescence as a good-looking athlete adored by guys and girls alike, Connell couldn't understand why it was so difficult to find lasting connections at a place like college, where he was supposed to be among his intellectual peers.

Rooney's novel is intensely interior, tracking the high highs and low lows of Marianne and Connell's inner lives. (It also describes in detail the racing thoughts and untamed sensations that the characters experience during the many sex scenes, which are much more difficult to convey in a visual medium like television.) Divided into 12 half-hour chapters, the adaptation arrives burdened by prestige-TV trappings, which is to say that the production is unassailably handsome and disappointingly anesthetized.

One of the chief appeals of Rooney's Normal People, I think, is its literary treatment of a story that is at its core a teen melodrama, even wish fulfillment. I don't mean that derisively — plenty of serious works of art are melodramas, and even more, I'd venture, involve a level of wish fulfillment on the part of the artist and/or the audience. But there is in Marianne's instant transformation from a friendless nerd to the worthy obsession of the hot jock something of, say, She's All That, and in her family dysfunction, any number of Lifetime movies.

Rooney's book lends a psychological richness to the oft-derided category of "women's stories." But the rawness of Marianne's journey — and the frailty of Connell's sense of self-worth — are subordinated to prestige TV's dictates of intimation and obliqueness. This version of adolescence largely lacks awkwardness, clamminess, gut-twisting emotions and, despite the present-day setting, technology's intrusion into every facet of the protagonists' lives. It's youth without youthfulness.

In many other respects, directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (2017's Howards End) have crafted a faithful adaptation. As in the novel, the miniseries — written by Rooney, Alice Birch and Mark O'Rowe — begins in a small-town high school, where Connell starts a sexual relationship with the lonely Marianne on the condition that neither tells a soul. (Initially set in rural western Ireland, Normal People features various accents, the more provincial of which, like Connell's, can be occasionally difficult to make out.)

Connell's single mom (Sarah Greene) works as a housekeeper in Marianne's home, but it's still him who feels like he's got everything to lose if news of their relationship got out. In an augur of things to come, Marianne responds with jarring detachment. "Is there anyone you have a crush on in school?" she asks him in bed one day. Connell responds in disbelief, "I'm still inside you."

After a betrayal, the couple break up for the first time. They reunite in college, but can't ever seem to commit — Marianne because she never quite can bring herself to believe that Connell could want her above all, Connell for reasons harder to discern. In one of Normal People's more heartbreaking observations, Marianne discovers in her dalliances with other men that, if she wants to be treated shoddily, there's no shortage of men eager to accommodate her wish. A lost and unsure Connell, meanwhile, despairs that he may never find the sense of community and security that he did as a teenager — even as he's wracked with guilt that his band of bros made high school a living hell for girls like Marianne.

To their credit, Abrahamson and Macdonald balance the breathing space necessary for Rooney's story beats to play out on screen with the pacing to keep each half-hour humming at a steady clip, though the later episodes do seem to contain more breathing than plot. Edgar-Jones is thoroughly unconvincing as the ugly girl in school that Marianne is introduced as and Mescal is distractingly strapping even for a high-school athlete, but they enjoy a believable chemistry and Edgar-Jones is especially devastating in later scenes as her character continues to dim her own light.

Cinematographers Suzie Lavelle and Kate McCullough's handheld cameras and dusky lighting evoke a wistful sense of naturalistic intimacy. Missing, still, however, is the inherent messiness of two teenagers in love. There's certainly plenty to admire in the production's lacquer. But it makes it harder to see the flesh-and-blood youths on the other side.

Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal
Directors: Lenny Abrahamson, Hettie Macdonald
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)