Current Issue #488

Normal People

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

The hyped adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel is a beautiful-looking and occasionally profound study of a sad, sexy relationship.

When Rooney’s second novel landed in 2018, it cemented the Irish writer’s reputation as an astute, zeitgeisty chronicler of western millennial melancholy. Now the eagerly awaited BBC/Hulu adaptation has landed, and just in the nick of time for audiences with more pent-up feelings of anxiety, detachment and yearning than ever.

Tailored to be binge-watched over a handful of sittings (not quite enough happens in each 27-minute bite to sustain conventional week-to-week viewing), the show introduces us to Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal as tie-wearing high school classmates Marianne and Connell.

Over 12 episodes we follow the pair’s ‘it’s complicated’ friendship from high school to university, across several formative years, fleeting relationships and many different bedrooms. With Rooney herself co-writing much of the series along with Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth), it’s a slow burn, but one populated with small, satisfying moments and some timely reflections on privilege and power (Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family, one of many power imbalances explored throughout the series). 

Along with a beguiling Luca Guadagnino-on-an-overcast-day visual style, the show makes some early creative choices that seem to self-consciously acknowledge its place in a canon of adolescence storytelling alongside the likes of Skins and The OC. An early use of Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek seems like a deliberate nod to the 2000s American soap, not to mention the now-traditional cognitive dissonance of watching beautiful adult actors pretend to be troubled teenagers. 

At such times, Normal People can feel predestined, or even designed, to become the kind of oft-referenced, isolation-era cultural touchstone that will fuel an avalanche of Tumblr posts (or whatever platform Zoomers will use). Occupying, perhaps, the same place that once-revered but now hopelessly dated fare like Zach Braff’s Garden State holds for older millennials who once self-identified as ‘arty’.

But it’s the home stretch, in which the pair’s relationship matures and the groundwork of their respective neuroses bear painful fruit, that the show really makes its play for longevity – and makes the most out of Rooney’s source material. For all the talk of destigmatising male mental health and Movember-style bro solidarity, Mescal’s portrayal of talented, handsome, athletic Connell in the throes of depression, and seeking treatment, is quite rare to see play out on mainstream TV. 

Connell’s arc, which captures the disorientating whiplash that comes when the social and societal pressures of high school give way to the apathy that awaits young people out in the world, neatly captures the gnawing uncertainty that colours much of Rooney’s work beyond the nice knitwear and dinner parties – an uncertainty that is perhaps more relevant now than it was in 2018.

Normal People (M) is now streaming on Stan

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer and editor living on Kaurna Country.

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