Normal People

Based on the successful book by Sally Rooney, this adaption, co-scripted by Rooney, tells the tale of Connell and Marianne.   Growing up in the Irish town of Sligo, they’ve known each other since they were 12 but only really begin to interact after Connell’s mum goes to work for Marianne’s mum as a cleaner.  Connell is quiet, thoughtful and popular; Marianne, is intelligent, assertive but alienates people and so is friendless.  Connell is pretty much the only other person that interacts with Marianne in any positive way and in her inimitably assertive way, she declares that she ‘likes him’ in the first episode.   They then embark on a secret affair, the secrecy is a destructive choice made by Connell out of fear of being judged by his friends for going out with the unpopular girl, and Marianne goes along with it out of fear of being rejected.

The story takes us from their last year of school to their last year at college and it’s as much of an emotional rollercoaster as you’re likely to go on.  The story has its very dark times but there are lighter moments and also ones of great beauty.  Some very complex issues are addressed such as the mental health of young men, domestic abuse and explorations of sexuality.   It’s in looking at these issues that this series excels, some of the scenes are heart-breaking and go right into your core to make you connect deeply with the characters.  They don’t seem like plot devices or the ‘issue of the week’, they seem like problems we all have, or easily could have.

Having watched endless movies and tv shows, read many books and listened to many songs, we’ve been conditioned into thinking that most relationships are between two fairly well-balanced people.  Often there’s some kind of quirk, or obstacle, but that’s overcome and usually there’s a positive resolution.   About halfway through this series I realised I was watching a story portraying real people, normal people.  Real people are fucked up, they have issues, they make mistakes.  Most people are fundamentally decent and have the best intentions, but emotional baggage, trauma and peer pressure throw bumps into our paths that prevent us from reaching the end in one perfect piece.

I guess one of the more controversial aspects of this show is in its depiction of sexuality.  I’ve never seen it as deftly, respectfully and so intimately portrayed as it is here. The tenderness in some scenes is palpable and stops just before it becomes intrusive or lurid so that we’re left with a deeper understanding of the protagonists.  Those scenes drive the story forward rather than becoming the reason for watching.

The two leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal both give incredible performances that make me excited to see what they’ll do next.   They imbue the characters with the truth required to tell the story of these two complicated individuals.  Marianne comes across as spikey and unlikeable (but cuttingly witty) when we first meet her but then we quickly gain some understanding and then fall in love with her.  Callum is a character you fall in love with instantly and that grows as the series progresses.  This isn’t to say they’re perfect, they really aren’t but despite the mistakes, the bad choices, the careless words or actions, they are a couple of good young people.

Aside from the two leads, I thought the character of Connell’s Mum, Lorraine played by Sarah Greene was the other outstanding role in this series.  Through her, you see why Connell is so morally grounded, she’s warm, loving and supportive of his choices but not afraid to put him right even if there’s a threat of alienating him.    Marianne’s mum, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different, and then there’s her brother…

The production of this show was impeccably done, there’s an idyllic quality to every location, from the home they repeatedly return to in Sligo to their lives at Trinity College in Dublin, to the house in Trieste, Italy and to Marianne’s year in Sweden.   The music is also perfectly chosen to suit every mood and is worth listening to in its own right as a soundtrack.

Normal People – The Soundtrack

One track that stood out for me, in episode two, was the appropriately titled ‘Hide and Seek’ by Imogen Heap as Connell and Marianne embark on their secretive relationship.  I recognised the tune and then the lyrics seemed familiar before it finally dawned on me that Matt Alber covered this on his 2008 album ‘Hide Nothing’, it was such a pleasure to hear this beautiful song in this beautiful story.  For those who don’t know Matt’s version, here it is:

Rather than binge-watch this, I wanted to enjoy it like you would a good meal or an expensive bottle of wine.  We watched it over the space of two weeks and in fact, I started watching it alone but by the second episode was so captivated that I got my partner to join me, so I watched it again from the start.    Having looked forward to every episode and just revelling in its beauty, I was enjoying the journey so much that I didn’t want it to end.  I was a little afraid that after all the brave storytelling there would be a ‘too-neat’ resolution but no, this is a masterclass in how to produce a satisfying resolution without resorting to tying everything up perfectly.

NetworkBBC / Hulu
CastDaisy Edgar-Jones, as Marianne Sheridan
Paul Mescal, as Connell Waldron
SeasonLimited Series (2020): 12 episodes