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In the second half-hour episode of the BBC’s five-part miniseries, Love, Nina, much hilarity supposedly ensues around a dumpster, parked outside a starchy neighbor’s house near the bohemian North London residence that is the story’s primary setting. And this strained adaptation of Nina Stibbe’s best-selling collection of letters — about her time working as a barefoot nanny from the sticks, thrust into a world of literary eccentrics and precociously clever children — works way too hard loading that dumpster with quirk upon quirk.
After his immaculate work crafting Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn into a screen drama distinguished by its emotional acuity and penetrating character insights, Nick Hornby’s adaptation here is all forced charm and exaggerated foibles. At least that’s how it’s been directed by S.J. Clarkson, in a tone as relentlessly one-note jaunty and quaint as Ruth Barrett’s music. This is a pleasant-ish but forgettable show without any edge whatsoever; it’s set in the 1980s and feels like that’s when it was made, too.
A National Book Award winner for nonfiction in 2014, Stibbe’s epistolary memoir recounts — via letters home to her sister back in rural Leicestershire — her experiences living and working on Gloucester Crescent. That address is the Camden Town home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her two sons (their father is director Stephen Frears). The book became a surprise hit with British readers. It’s infused with the author’s wry worldview, which alternates between curious and bemused, and her observation of an artsy literati scene that included writers Alan Bennett, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and Deborah Moggach, opera director Jonathan Miller and filmmaker Karel Reisz.
Nostalgia for the 1980s was also a big part of the book’s appeal. But that’s limited in the TV adaptation to passing references — Shakin‘ Stevens, Margaret Thatcher — or to Shirley Conran’s lurid potboiler, Lace, used to define Nina’s alternate universe in terms of her choice of reading material. (Anyone who lived in London during that decade will recall posters for the Lace miniseries plastered all over Underground stations, blaring the immortal tagline: “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”)
Based on the first two episodes, screened in the Berlinale’s TV sidebar, much of the literary color and specificity has been lost in Hornby’s semi-fictionalized version. Bennett has become Scottish writer Malcolm Tanner (Jason Watkins), turning one of the drollest people on the planet into a priggish bore, whose sniffy pronouncements on the respective virtues of canned vs. fresh produce make you want to pelt him with both varieties.
Much of the humor, such as it is, comes from the interactions between 20-year-old Nina (Faye Marsay) and the kids, Joe (Ethan Rouse) and Max (Harry Webster), livewire preteens who have a habit of listening in and adding their two pence’ worth to every conversation, particularly when it’s about sex or neighborhood gossip. But most of this stuff is impossibly cutesy and knowing. Hornby tapped far more successfully into the poignant, funny, absurd ways that children can foster connections around them almost 20 years ago in his novel About a Boy, which spawned a movie and a U.S. TV series.
Joe is a fictionalized stand-in for Sam Frears, whose rare nervous system disorder was explored in a British TV documentary and e-book. Presumably, the series will delve deeper into the boy’s condition in later episodes.
The show’s chief saving grace is Helena Bonham Carter as Georgia, the Wilmers character. While everyone else is charming the pants off the viewer with all the subtlety of a pack of rapists, HBC is working wonders with an underplayed double-take, a cocked eyebrow, a blunt observation or a deadpan rejoinder. Hornby’s writing is sharpest for this busy working single mum, whose love life consists of the occasional half-hearted date with a floppy-haired intellectual, making you wish that Georgia was the miniseries’ focus.
However, that of course is Marsay’s Nina, the anti-Mary Poppins, an unsophisticated school dropout far too plainspoken and guileless to be intimidated by her fish-out-of-water situation. The setup is in place for development of her bantering romance with another unfiltered local, Nunney (Joshua McGuire). But Nina’s ironic perspective and unvarnished candor — not to mention her endless stream of jolly voiceover thoughts — are so aggressively “refreshing” that you want to bury her in that dumpster.
It doesn’t help that Marsay (known for a recurring arc as the Waif on seasons five and six of Game of Thrones) is made to look so much like Lena Dunham, with her hacked-off hair and blobby sweaters. Half-hour television that departs from the traditional sitcom model into bolder territory — not just Girls, but also Transparent, Master of None, Broad City and Getting On, to name a small handful — has flourished in the last few years, which makes Love, Nina seem hopelessly antiquated. It’s also hard to figure for whom it’s intended. There are too many racy references to sex to make it suitable for children, and yet it’s tone is so precious and patronizing that only the most undemanding adults will buy into it.
Audience response within a festival bubble can be deceptive, especially at a big premiere screening with talent present. The German-majority crowd in Berlin was chortling away in all the required places, God bless them. But I found this more and more insufferably twee as it went on. The show also assumes an inbuilt affection for the book, which will likely concentrate its appeal to the U.K.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special: Series)
Production companies: See-Saw Films for BBC
Cast: Faye Marsay, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Joshua McGuire, Ethan Rouse, Harry Webster
Director: S.J. Clarkson
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby, based on the book by Nina Stibbe
Producer: Derrin Schlesinger
Executive producers: Jamie Laurenson, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, S.J. Clarkson, Nick Hornby, Nina Stibbe, Lucy Richter
Director of photography: Balazs Bolybo
Production designer: Maddy Turnbull
Music: Ruth Barrett
Editor: Liana Del Giudice
Casting: Rachel Freck
Sales: BBC Worldwide
Not rated, 56 minutes (two episodes)
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