"Normal People," the award-winning novel by Irish author Sally Rooney, arrived on streaming services this week, and it's set to make its Irish lead Paul Mescal a star.
Talk about a captive audience. The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's bestseller Normal People arrives on Hulu this week when most of America is trapped indoors to binge-watch all twelve half-hour episodes, which I predict untold millions of them are about to do.
Rooney has the devil's own luck, clearly. The lockdown ensures the show will be all the talk this week. That's certain I think because it's about all the things that we miss most, love and dating, college and learning, bookstores and pubs and clubs and cafes and travel, all the normal details of normal life.
Dublin looks fantastic in the show, so does Trinity College and the Sligo countryside, even Tuscany gets a gorgeous look in, guaranteed to make holidaymakers with their plans on hold sigh heavily. Like Connell and Marianne, the show's two romantically entangled heroes, we really didn't know how good we had it until we were forced to look back.
So is it any good? Teenage romance isn't really given a lot of respect in most circles. First loves are often treated like your training wheels, things to be discarded or moved on from once you get past prom and get the hang of life and love.
But for Connell and Marianne in Normal People first love isn't just a passing high school infatuation, it's a life-changing rite of passage, leading both of them toward the people they that will eventually become. It's profound. It really matters.
So Sally Rooney is to be thanked for treating first love with the seriousness it deserves. Yes, we may cringe at Connell and Marianne's awkward antics because they continually make rookie mistakes their more mature selves will later regret, but there's real truth in these delicate first-time negotiations. There's more than a little beauty too.
What makes Normal People shine is the star-making performance of newcomer Paul Mescal (the Platonic ideal of a sound lad). He's so good as Connell, the Sligo-born, and raised decent skin that we care right away about what happens to him as the show unfolds over twelve half-hour episodes.
Marianne is winningly played by British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, who manages to pull off a peerless Irish accent, but she's less a recognizably Irish and a more mid-Atlantic romantic lead. With her quivering pre-Raphaelite beauty and double-barreled British name, the truth is most of the time she's more Brideshead than Ballyporeen.
But onscreen when the secretly studious working-class young man meets the unpopular but equally brilliant upper-class young woman sparks fly. The thing that Normal People gets so right is that it's not just desire or love that unites them it's real friendship too, of the kind you only make a few times in your life. So when their relationship hits a real bump they're terrified not just of losing their lover but also their best friend. And that's what makes Normal People so compelling.
“I think you've hit the nail on the head,” Paul Mescal, 24, tells the Irish Voice. “I think in any kind of healthy romantic relationship the bedrock is an incredible bond and friendship and that will always generally come first in a romantic relationship.”
“We see this throughout the series that desire and the physical relationship between them at some points damage their friendship or it's at risk of being put in danger. And I think that's something in particular that Connell wrestles with towards the end of the series when they're back being in friendship again.
There's the threat of it becoming physical again and he's worried that if it goes to that point that they will lose their friendship. And, and obviously that shows how strong it is between them because it's not something he's willing to sacrifice easily.”
Daisy Edgar-Jones, 21, agrees: “A friendship like that can fundamentally sort of change the course of your life. I think that's what's wonderful about their friendship is that they give so much to each other, not just in terms of, you know, romantically, but also in terms of their lives. Marianne encourages Connell to pursue his talent and Connell kind of gives Maryann the ability to accept who she is. So I think their friendship is wonderful and the idea of losing that is a very tricky thing for them both.”
There's a lot to admire in the show. The Irish high school scenes are completely convincing in all their jaded conformity. Connell is especially careful not to tip anyone off to the fact that he's quietly shifting Marianne in case he's tarnished by her cooties. Mister popular is dating miss pariah and the tensions this creates are well conveyed.
It's the big house and Marianne's fairytale-like hateful older brother storylines that strain credulity a bit. Introduced to explore class tensions and create some dramatic contrast, we never really learn why her family is quite so sinister or why they persecute her to the degree they do? Is it simply because Marianne's mother is “odd” and her brother has inherited her doubtful mental health? We never really learn.
Later in college Marianne and Connell's roles get switched. He's the fish out of water and she's suddenly in her element. “I think with Marianne the things that make a stand out for all the wrong reasons at school make her stand out for the right reasons at Trinity,” says Edgar-Jones.
For viewers, the hardest part of Normal People will be watching two people who clearly adore each other make simple but life-altering mistakes about how they talk and don't talk to each other.
“If we were all expert communicators there'd be no drama in society because you'd simply be able to bring up an issue and either move forward from it or discard the relationship,” says Mescal. “I definitely feel like Connell has got a bit of a chip on his shoulder in terms of asking for what he wants from Marianne. And I think that's something that causes him great stress. And I just think struggling to talk about it academically in a way without miscommunication is something that we all do.”
Mescal looks like an Irish everyman, although of the much better-looking variety. What he does with his role is just extraordinary, resulting in one of the most nuanced portrayals of young Irish adulthood yet captured on screen.
“It's a really intimate, very close look at this relationship,” agrees Academy Award-winning director Lenny Abrahamson. “And you know, the lovely thing is that we have a lot of time to spend with the characters and can sort of zoom in to the kind of undulations of their relationship. And I think the thing that is very gratifying is that even though the events themselves are often quite small, they feel very big. The stakes feel high. You can feel the intensity of the attraction and the connection between the two people.”
“It also shows that at its best the generation that Marianne and Connell come from are more honest, sophisticated, open and self-aware than my generation I think, or than I was when I was that age,” Abrahamson continues.
“There's a depth to how they relate to each other. You feel that there's nothing juvenile about it, that the feelings that you have at that age are as important and impactful as anything you'll ever feel, possibly more so. I found that really interesting. As my mother would've said, there's eating and drinking in them, there's so much substance.”
Normal People premieres on Hulu on April 29, the first episode aired on RTE in Ireland on April 28.