When it comes to the romance genre, I tend to get more out of the stories that are unconventionally told or presented, whether it be the walk-and-talk of Before Sunrise or the bold headiness of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. These unique modes of storytelling often are more successful at conveying the emotional truths of falling in love than most generic romantic comedies. Normal People, a 12-part series available for streaming on Hulu now, is a particular exception, using the familiar tropes of the romance genre and transcending them to create a more unflinching, richer experience.
The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s highly acclaimed romance novel tells the story of young love. But its somewhat conventional framework is a springboard to delve deeper into mature themes of identity, class differences, and mental health.
Normal People is not just about its achingly authentic love story. It’s also about how such an understanding and passionate connection between two people allows them the vulnerability and the strength to confront and deal with their individual struggles.
All the mistakes and unwanted emotional pain young Marianne and Connell cause each other in their “will they/won’t they” romantic roller coaster are negligible when compared to the positive ways they affect each other’s lives. It’s a story of real love, told beautifully over six hours by extremely talented directors, writers, and actors.
We first meet Connell and Marianne in their last year of high school, in the small Irish town of Sligo. Connell (Paul Mescal) is the popular athlete, and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) the rebellious, opinionated outcast. Connell’s mother also works for Marianne’s wealthy, conservative mother as a housemaid, a class distinction in addition to the two’s opposing social types.
And yet, when they have time outside of school to be alone together, sparks fly and passions are high, leading them to begin a secret love affair. The only reason to keep their romance a secret is Connell’s naive fear of how his less gentlemanly, judgmental high school friends would perceive their relationship.
This inevitably causes problems, serving as the beginnings of an on-again/off-again romance that lasts through college, as Marianne and Connell attempt to navigate their respective experiences while remaining in each other’s orbit. Will they find a way to stay together, or will too many obstacles get in the way of their love? It’s that commonly tantalizing question at the heart of a lot of romances that Normal People ponders and even challenges; and it’s all the better for it.
Lenny Abrahamson (Room) directs Normal People‘s first six episodes, while Hettie Macdonald (Howard’s End) directs the second half. Both do a fantastic job of depicting intimacy, visually letting us in on how our characters are feeling when they aren’t necessarily speaking. A quick shot of an empty hand as our characters sit side-by-side, or a startling cut during a moment of emotional vulnerability succinctly convey what Connell or Marianne are thinking or feeling. The use of extreme close-ups brings us into their intimate space, letting us more strongly feel the vulnerability that we can read across their faces.
All of these observant and alluring directorial choices would be for naught if the performances weren’t there, and boy are they there. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal are both revelations here, giving performances that are fully-formed and completely natural. Whether we are seeing these characters putting up a facade, in a place of uncertainty, or they are emotionally (and often physically) exposed, Edgar-Jones and Mescal manage to make every moment feel real in the subtlest of ways. Their eye acting is off the charts, along with their chemistry.
Normal People also doesn’t shy away from presenting mature subject matter, doing it in a way that serves the storytelling and adds dimension to the protagonists. There are many explicit sex scenes in this show. And they all have purpose, whether it be to illuminate Connell’s tender nature in taking Marianne’s virginity (which is a beautiful lesson in consent) or to frame how Marianne sees herself outside of the bedroom. It never feels gratuitous, but rather necessary to getting the entire picture of these two, both as individuals and together.
As the series wades into darker waters in the later episodes, the filmmakers (or TV-makers, I guess?) treat the material with the same unflinching honesty as the sex scenes. And by that point, we know Connell and Marianne so well that their struggles are deeply felt. And the ways in which they both support each other in these moments of crisis definitely increased the waterworks. It all rings true.
Maybe we could have seen more from Marianne and Connell’s respective mothers, and maybe some of the interim partners are a bit too broadly characterized, but these don’t change the fact that Normal People is one of the best romances in years to have hit screens, big or small. It’s an adaptation that handles every detail with grace and care, from the direction to the performances. If you’re looking for something to feel close to in these socially distant, isolating times, Normal People will grab hold of you and it will stay with you long after you’re done watching.
Normal People is rated TV-MA, and it is now streaming on Hulu. All images courtesy of Hulu.