Love stories are a rare find these days on the big or small screen. If there’s a couple together in the story, they’re usually surrounded by a family or plopped down into some adventure together. That’s why NORMAL PEOPLE, the new Hulu/BBC miniseries, is so unique and welcome. Based on Sally Rooney’s international bestseller, it tells the story of two Irish teenagers and their on-again-off-again relationship from high school to grad school. The narrative not only concentrates wholly on their relationship, but it brings an honesty, intimacy, and immediacy to the screen that is almost unheard of these days. It’s a stunning piece.
The miniseries, which debuted on Hulu on April 29, consists of 12 half-hour episodes. Each is a dramatic chapter in the course of the complicated relationship between Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal). He’s well-liked and popular in the high school of their Irish town. Connell’s smart, but quiet, bordering on shy. Still, he’s a talented writer and a gifted rugby player. Marianne, on the other hand, is not well-liked by the student body or the faculty. She’s incredibly smart, but mouthy, a constant contrarian. It doesn’t help that she comes from money, a fact that makes the majority of working-class students shun her.
Despite their differences, Marianne and Connell are drawn to each other. He’s easy on the eyes, with understated charm, but Marianne likes his intellect and soulfulness just as much. Connell, in turn, finds her both attractive and intimidating but is jazzed by her smarts and the warmth she shows him. When they gaze at each other, their connection is electric, and it’s something neither has experienced with anyone else in their lives.
Yet, despite their burgeoning connection, one that will encompass mind, body, and soul, there are plenty of gaps between them. He’s working class, proud, and keenly aware of the macho requirements to be a regular bloke at his school. She’s often strident and has little use for the locals or their small-town mentality. When the two start their relationship, Connell asks Marianne to keep it hush-hush. He doesn’t want the grief from his judgmental friends. Marianne goes along with his wishes, because she wants to be with him, but also because she’s battling issues of self-worth. Her mother is a cold as ice and her older brother is little more than an entitled bully.
The series is wise to show them circling each other, getting to know each other through school events, and their private conversations. Theirs is a slow build, but when they finally have sex, the story doesn’t cut away as soon as it starts as so many movies and shows do. Instead, the scene goes on for ten minutes, moving effortlessly from their conversation to gentle kissing to fumbling disrobing. Director Lenny Abrahamson (ROOM) keeps the camera close to their faces the whole time, making for one of the most intimate and erotic set pieces ever captured on screen.
Connell has strong feelings for her, and vice versa, but he ruins the good thing they’ve got going when he invites a girl from his clique to a school dance instead of his secret girlfriend. A hurt and pissed Marianne dumps him, hard, and it takes Connell a while to realize what he’s lost. Even his mother, played knowingly by Sarah Greene, in a terrific supporting turn, lambasts her son for his immaturity. When it finally dawns on how awful he was, he breaks down and messages Marianne, begging for forgiveness. But she’s just as proud and gives him the cold shoulder. Not long after, he heads off to the university at Dublin to pursue a writing career, still pining for Marianne and ruing his stupidity.
From there, the two weave in and out of each other’s lives throughout college and grad school. Their truest education ends up being how they learn to mature alone and in their relationship, whatever form it happens to be taking at the time, through its many ups and downs along the way.
What makes the series so compelling is its entire concentration on the two of them. There is no distracting B story, or subplots, just the study of these two people and their complex lives. What makes the series even more enthralling is its willingness to show how flawed they are both as individuals and when they’re together. These two are good people, but their egos and baggage keep getting in the way of their own best interests.
The show is called NORMAL PEOPLE, conjuring up comparisons to ORDINARY PEOPLE, another story about people dealing with extraordinary abilities to self-inflict wounds, but its title also knowingly speaks to its empathetic audience. Everyone has experienced both joy and pain in equal measure in their relationships, and the problems that Connell and Marianne face are utterly relatable even if sometimes they lean towards the extreme.
The series faithfully adapted Rooney’s vaulted prose, and indeed the author herself is one of the screenwriters of the miniseries, along with Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe. Abrahamson directed the first six episodes, while the equally talented Hettie Macdonald (BEAUTIFUL THING) helmed the final six. The cinematography by Suzie Lavelle and Kate McCullough is exquisite and sophisticated, more evocative than most series or films ever are, and the editing by Nathan Nugent and Stephen O’Connell never cuts away from a character reaction too soon. The story never feels rushed but a lot happens in each half-hour of its twelve episodes.
Of course, a love story, no matter how well written or produced, comes down to how good the two leads are together and the chemistry between Mescal and Edgar-Jones is sublime. They’re especially good at making the little moments feel as vivid as the big ones, like when they’re enjoying ice cream novelties together or watching each other fall asleep in separate settings via their laptops.
Newcomer Paul Mescal is brilliant in a tricky role. Connell is not verbose and suppresses so much, but Mescal wisely uses his body language and eyes to convey his character’s true thoughts and feelings. As for Daisy Edgar-Jones, she is simply astonishing. One might have to go all the way back to a young Jane Fonda to find an ingenue who could hold the screen nearly as well. Edgar-Jones makes her character achingly real and utterly mesmerizing whether she’s talking, listening to others, or just sitting still. Both fierce and fragile, Edgar-Jones’s performance is a stunner and should bring her international stardom. The English actress even nails her character’s Irish accent flawlessly.
The miniseries has a few miscalculations: too many pop songs on the soundtrack are on-the-nose, and a few of the villainous characters could almost be twirling mustaches. Surprisingly, the series misses the opportunity to show us the great writer that Connell is supposed to be. Couldn’t there have been at least one scene where his brilliant prose was read? More successful is the mostly young supporting cast, all registering vividly. The series also makes the most of its Irish, Italian, and Swedish locations, and may even create some fashion trends with Marianne’s spiffy college wardrobe.
Romance onscreen may have fallen out of favor with audiences because of the all-too-predictable trajectory of the storytelling. NORMAL PEOPLE serves as an antidote to all of the dreck out there, telling its romantic narrative with a freshness and immediacy that has become all but extinct onscreen. It has the confidence to stay close to its pair, excise all the extraneous, and keep us rooting for this fascinating couple on their extraordinary journey of self-discovery, friendship, and love. It’s a remarkable achievement.