Review: Normal People

Pictured: Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.
Photo: © Element Pictures / Enda Bowe.

David Prendeville

The undoubted television highlight of the Covid-19 lockdown period has been the launch of the much-anticipated adaptation of Sally Rooney’s ecstatically acclaimed bestseller Normal People.
The series is a co-production between Dublin 4 based production company Element Pictures, BBC Three and Hulu. It is directed by our own Lenny Abrahamson, who did the first six episodes, and Hettie Macdonald, who did the remaining six episodes.
Each episode is half an hour long. RTE have been showing two episodes per week since April 28th, while the entire series was released on the BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Hulu in America.
The show follows the romantic relationship between Marianne and Connell, whose love first blossoms in sixth year of secondary school in Sligo, and who then both attend Trinity College together.
We witness the evolution of this passionate and tender romantic relationship and the various ups and downs that ensue over the years. The parts of Marianne and Connell are performed brilliantly by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal respectively. There are also strong supporting turns throughout, not least from Sarah Greene as Connell’s mother.
The show is beautifully shot by Suzie Lavelle and Kate McCullough. Stephen Rennick’s score complements the bittersweet, emotive nature of proceedings superbly.
The production design and costume design by, respectively, Lucy Van Lonkhuyzen and Lorna Marie Mugan are equally of a first-class standard.
The script, adapted by Rooney herself, alongside Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, is lean and finely constructed.
Abrahamson and MacDonald have done a wonderful job of giving the show something of a nostalgic glow that heightens even further the extremity of emotion entailed in youthful romance. It feels like these are memories being played out in front of us, making events all the more sad and sweet.
In its depiction of Marianne and Connell’s relationship, the show touches on a number of themes such as class, consent, domestic abuse, sadomasochism and depression. These themes are dealt with and presented in an honest and frank manner, but also with the elegance and nuance that permeates throughout much of the show.
The show’s frequent sex scenes recently prompted the ire and outrage of callers on Joe Duffy’s Liveline radio programme, much to the amusement of most. In these difficult times there was something oddly comforting that a show as sweet as this could cause such outrage amongst wrong-minded people.
What truly elevates this programme beyond most romances is the electric chemistry between the two lead performers. Every glance, every gesture between the pair is utterly impactful and brilliantly illustrative of their relationship and evocative of romantic love.
Abrahamson has long shown a talent for drawing superb, nuanced, completely believable performances, from Pat Shortt in Garage to Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for her performance in Room. Here, he and Macdonald’s approach compliments the searing talent evident in both Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.
This is a terrific programme and has deservedly captured the zeitgeist in these difficult times. The show has been sold to more than 20 territories worldwide, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
It has broken records for viewership on the BBC iPlayer and has gained much attention on social media, with everyone from Mia Farrow to Kim Kardashian tweeting about it.
It is another wonderful success story for Element Pictures, who in recent years have enjoyed the glamorous Oscar campaign of films such as Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite and Abrahamson’s Room.
It will likely be remembered as something of a landmark in Irish television, although the absence of RTÉ in its production, is a terrible indictment of the State broadcaster, both financially and otherwise.
It is another wonderful example of the talent possessed by Abrahamson. In this writer’s opinion, this stands as his best work since Garage. It is also clearly demonstrative of Macdonald’s skill, whose work I was less familiar with. The show will likely launch long careers for Edgar Jones and Mescal, it’s two transcendent lead performers.