‘The darkness within; or else the light’: Normal People – Television Review

Normal People: Intelligent, organic story-telling

There’s something of the fairy tale about this Irish series based on the novel by Sally Rooney. During the summer of their final school exams, Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) fall into an intense affair. She lives in a large, loveless house with her mother, a solicitor, and older brother, while Connell’s mother Lorraine (Sarah Greene) works as a cleaner for the Sheridans. There are echoes of Ian McEwan’s Atonement about the set up. This is modern Ireland, though, and the obstacle is not so much social class as other pressures – she is defensive, spiky, vulnerable; he is popular, both masculine and diffident. Both are drifting, and drawn towards each other.  

Episode One opens with the intimate style that characterises the early episodes. We follow the back of Marianne’s head as she walks quickly down the school corridor. The pair are seen together early in the episode (framed separately through the glass door of her mother’s house), but take only oblique glances at one another in school. She acts out in class and is unpopular. He is one of only a few students to show her kindness, though mostly when alone with her. Marianne takes most of the close-ups at first. They begin to orbit one another, while other students at times blur into the background. The structure, too, can be dream-like – cutting from them sitting together on the school bus, to him emerging from his car on her stately cedar-lined driveway – as one thing leads to another.

I would lie down here – and you could do anything you wanted to me. Do you know that?

The series is co-scripted by the novelist, Sally Rooney

They begin their affair in Episode 2. The series has attracted some criticism for the sexual content, but also praise for its sensitive handling of young romance. We might expect this level of nudity to be more typical of the big-screen. Personally, I thought the tenderness and intimacy somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film, Don’t Look Now. Daisy Edgar-Jones, in particular has a great expressiveness that suggests a real tender vulnerability; versatile and self-assured, like a younger Saoirse Ronan. As things develop between the characters, her eyes become more child-like, her dialogue is all soft assurance-seeking; insecure, articulate (“I hope you don’t find it too hard trying to resist me,” she asks him, and “Is there anyone you have a crush on in school?”) In a careful touch, Marianne is seen reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, a haunting tale of orphaned-love.

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edger-Jones as Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan

Paul Mescal too delivers a great performance as Connell. Caught between his friends and her, he is hopeless and lost – out of depth in his own feelings. His speech becomes more clipped as his character withdraws; only his eyes and slightly down-tuned mouth suggest his inner-conflict. His dialogue is stilted (“I would miss you if you didn’t want to see me anymore. I would be upset, alright?”), and becomes at times little more than swallowed syllables. By contrast her articulations, “I’d never pretend not to know you,” and stronger still: “I would lie down here – and you could do anything you wanted to me. Do you know that?” have the ring of Wuthering Heights about them. Some beautiful photography of the Atlantic west-coast captures this allusive quality – by turns gently sun-lit and overcast – as the couple’s relations subtly shift.

Who among us hasn’t done something shameful? As Episode 3 built towards an inevitably betrayal, I thought of lines I’d written myself: Crouching, I warmed my outspread hands, like Saint Peter, quietly. As Dickens pointed out, we often let ourselves down for the sake of those whom we don’t much like anyway. This is an excellent series, with the ring of truth about how intense, generous, and cruel youth can be; how conservative, and forgiving. It credits the audience with enough intelligence to let the story develop organically. Both characters are fatherless, but it is up to viewers to decide what significance, if any, this might have for them as these stories remain largely untold.

My only caveat would be that Normal People loses some unity of time and place, and with it the intensity of the first three episodes. From Episode 4 onward it becomes, at times, more soap opera than independent film – a kind of war of attrition between the characters, charting the ups and downs of their undergraduate affairs. This might better suit the BBC3 target audience of 15—25 year-olds than an older demographic. But then, it follows the narrative of Sally Rooney’s novel across several years of the characters’ lives. As the series goes on, the nudity dramatises a certain innocence and its loss. But the early episodes are beautifully shot. Overall, it’s a great series with superb central performances, and brilliantly scripted in dialogue awash with its Irish idiom (“What was going on there – with yourself and herself?) It will more than repay the time spent watching it.

Coda

From my upstairs window I see the post arriving. It’s the upbeat Polish woman. She seems to enjoy life, and does not bother with gloves. The front cover befits a bestseller and shows an illustration of two young people embracing inside a half-opened sardine tin; Sally Rooney looks out from the inside back-cover with the pensive face of a young Angela Carter. This bodes well, I think. I peel back the pages, the first line echoes: Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.

Links, credits, references:

The early episodes are directed by Lenny Abrahamson. The series is produced by Catherine Magee, and written by Sally Rooney & Alice Birch, based on Rooney’s novel, Normal People (Faber, 2018).

The series was produced by the Irish Film Industry and Screen Ireland; an Element Pictures Production for the BBC in association with Hulu (2019). First broadcast in the UK on BBC3 (26 April 2020).

The title of this post is from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Featured image: Wikipedia, (Title Card) Fair Use: Owner: BBC Studios, Hulu

One thought on “‘The darkness within; or else the light’: Normal People – Television Review

  1. Pingback: Stolen light: some highlights of 2020 | Benedict Gilbert poems

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