Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the story of Connell and Marianne, who grew up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but are from very different worlds. Connell’s mother works as a cleaner in Marianne’s vast family home in the nice part of Carricklea. Connell works in a garage at weekends to help bolster his mother’s pay packet.
Friendless and deprived of affection at home, studious Marianne leads a solitary existence at school. Connell is good looking, smart and athletic. When they strike up a conversation in Marianne’s kitchen as Connell comes to collect his mother one afternoon, the attraction is immediate – yet their backgrounds dictate they can’t maintain any relationship outside the confines of their clandestine after-school encounters.
When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, their deep connection lasts long into the following years, as the pair navigate new relationships, strained family conflicts and try to find their places in the world beyond Carricklea. As the tables turn and Marianne becomes the cool, popular one, while Connell struggles to adjust, we’re exposed to the pair’s magnetism and flaws, as the series explores how one person can shape the course of the rest of your life.
Set between 2011 and 2015, the half-hour episodes flicker between time frames and perspectives – Marianne’s and Connell’s – as the ‘will-they-won’t-they?’ narrative weaves from first words to full-frontal frolicking and, finally, four-year familiarity. The show is exceptionally well cast. Cold Feet, War of the Worlds and Gentleman Jack star Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Marianne, brilliantly capturing both her vulnerability and unshakable confidence. Paul Mescal, a 24-year-old Irish actor with a background in theatre, plays Connell in his first TV role. His portrayal of Connell’s sensitivity and subtle smartness is spot on, and he radiates the warmth that attracts Marianne in the first place. Above all, despite some of the protagonists’ more questionable decisions, Edgar-Jones and Mescal exude the overwhelming appeal of both characters – you never root for one over the other, only for the relationship as a whole.
Normal People speaks to anyone who’s grown up feeling unsure of themselves. It nails adolescent sensations of conflicted morality, unrequited love and blurred consent with uncomfortable accuracy. Absent fathers, domestic abuse, suicide, submission – the series isn’t afraid to explore a raft of taboo subjects throughout its 12 episodes, of which Rooney co-wrote the first six. The skilful storytelling is rooted in her ability to pull viewers back from the edge of terrible events and bring the focus back onto Marianne, Connell and their complicated, yet all-consuming relationship. This beautiful coming-of-age drama is a flawless adaptation. Whether you’ve read the book or not, Normal People is essential viewing.
Normal People is available to watch on BBC3 now and each Monday at 9pm on BBC1
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