'Normal People' Is Like A John Hughes Movie — Reworked By Jane Austen

Apr 29, 2020
Originally published on April 29, 2020 2:12 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new TV series "Normal People," which drops today on Hulu, is adapted from the prizewinning, bestselling novel by Sally Rooney. It tells the story of a will-they-or-won't-they romance between a young Irish couple who first meet in high school. Our critic at large John Powers says the show is stronger on feelings than ideas.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: This is a tough century for stories of passionate love, not because people don't love each other passionately anymore but because today's reigning cultural style is ironic rather than romantic. Artists would sooner seem heartless than embarrassingly sincere. One who's found a fertile middle ground between ardor and irony is 29-year-old Sally Rooney, the acclaimed Irish novelist whose books many of my younger women friends pass around like talismanic texts. Her second and most recent novel, "Normal People," has just been adapted into a 12-part Hulu series directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald.

Awash in steamy romance, this tale of tumultuous young love is like a John Hughes movie reworked by Jane Austen. The action begins in West Ireland's County Sligo with two alienated high school students. Daisy Edgar-Jones plays the brainy Marianne, who's off-puttingly and unhappily abnormal. Other students think she's plain and weird. In contrast, Connell - played by Paul Mescal - wears the outward garb of success. He's a good student, a star jock and a popular dude. But his sensitive inner self feels straitjacketed.

The two begin talking at Marianne's home, where his mother cleans house for her lawyer mom. With Marianne taking the lead, they soon start sleeping together, all the time, making love with the thrilling intimacy they find nowhere else in the world. Still, Connell insists on keeping their connection secret, lest he somehow be mortified in front of his friends.

The power dynamic flips when they go to study at Dublin's elite Trinity College. Suddenly, the worldly Marianne is the cool one, while working-class Connell is the outsider. Predictably, they wind up back in bed together, launching an on-again, off-again relationship containing many annoying moments of miscommunication. I kept waiting, not a little impatiently, for them to finally stay together. After all, they share a chemistry that's always been obvious, as in this scene early on, during the run up to their first kiss.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NORMAL PEOPLE")

PAUL MESCAL: (As Connell) You know, you were saying the other day that you like me - by the photocopier, you said it.

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: (As Marianne) Yeah.

MESCAL: (As Connell) Yeah. Did you mean like as a friend or what?

EDGAR-JONES: (As Marianne) No, not just as a friend.

MESCAL: (As Connell) Yeah. I thought that might be implied. I just wasn't sure. See - I'm just a little confused about what I feel. I think it'll be awkward in school if something happened with us.

EDGAR-JONES: (As Marianne) No one would have to know.

POWERS: Now, Rooney has a knack for revealing what's going through her character's minds. She tells us the crucial things that they cannot or will not say out loud. The novel lets us see how Marianne and Connell's amorous vacillations arise from familiar modern travails - family dysfunction, class anxiety, shifting gender roles and a distinctively contemporary uncertainty as to what, if anything, they should commit to.

This novelistic virtue poses a problem onscreen. Even as the series faithfully captures Rooney's finely etched scenes - Episode 5 is extraordinarily good - without her sharp-edged narration, it's hard to know why Marianne lets other boyfriends degrade her or why Connell remains so secretive when he doesn't need to.

Their tormented inability to express their inner selves makes the show itself a bit inexpressive, hence its reliance on sex scenes. Normally, I dislike these things, not only because they look gross but because all the huffing and puffing stops the story dead. This isn't true in "Normal People," whose lovemaking features a bit of full-frontal nudity by both of them, which you can take as a warning or an inducement. Neither exploitative nor gratuitous, these nicely turned scenes reveal Connell and Marianne's unique emotional intimacy, to them even more than to us. Yet once we grasp that their bond is special, we need less body heat and more inner light to understand exactly why they keep drifting together and apart and why that might matter.

That said, the series exudes an addictive romantic pull that will probably make it a hit. Certainly, its young stars could hardly be better. Early on, Edgar-Jones is pretty enough that it's hard for us to really believe she's supposed to be the plain girl. It's like putting glasses on a starlet so she can play a librarian. But her performance captures the wounded elusiveness of Marianne, who keeps finding ways to disguise her tremulous inner life. As Connell, Mescal may be even better, although it took me a while to believe he was as smart as the show claims he is. With a blushing Irish face that's often a roadmap of agonized confusion, he shines as a guy who would have it made if only he could find a self he's comfortable living inside.

Then again, such failure is almost the point in this ardent tale whose title could hardly be more ironic. Even as Marianne and Connell pine to be normal people having a normal relationship, the series suggests that their inability to realize this fantasy may be the most normal thing about them.

DAVIES: FRESH AIR critic at large John Powers reviewed the new TV series "Normal People" on Hulu. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, New York Times investigative reporter Jesse Drucker talks about the rescue package enacted by Congress to address the economic damage of the coronavirus. He says, as small businesses and individuals struggle to obtain federal aid, the wealthiest are poised to reap tens of billions of dollars in tax savings. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO'S "I'LL REMEMBER APRIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.