You don't often see shy, anxious and introverted characters as protagonists in screen stories. Films and TV shows demand action and these personalities tend not to fit, better suiting the more mindful medium of the novel.
But the new BBC Three adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut Conversations With Friends – under the pressure of its adored televisual predecessor Normal People – proves that that insularity works beautifully on screen, when given time. It’s therapeutic for those of us burdened with a more passive nature: this patient, 12-part drama shows we’re worthy and interesting enough to deserve a detailed close-up.
Alison Oliver is quietly, awkwardly enchanting as Frances, a uni student at Trinity College, Dublin. She rarely smiles with her teeth, her lips pursed together tightly like she’s afraid of what could tumble out. She delivers spoken-word poems with her best friend and former lover Bobbi (Sasha Lane), a politically charged, New York-born woman of colour (rightly modifying the original text).
Bobbi is Frances's conduit to social interaction. Bobbi hugs, Frances doesn’t. Frances nods, Bobbi speaks. At gatherings, Bobbi stays while Frances leaves early. Despite these differences, as well as Bobbi’s irritating possessiveness, they look out for each other.
They meet the lauded writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke), and they’re swiftly embraced into her friendship group. Too swiftly to be convincing, but the speed demonstrates Bobbi’s instant social prowess. They meet Melissa's husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), a dashing, well-built actor with a contradictory quietness matching that of Frances.
Two sides develop: the silent and awkward versus the loud and outspoken. Sentences started by Frances and Nick drift, unfinished, into self-consciousness while Bobbi and Melissa cut them off to preserve excitement in the conversation. It's predictable by their stares and subtle chemistry that Frances and Nick will get together: developing a passionate affair with a lot of emotional sex.
A confusion of contemporary sensibilities, chiefly monogamy vs adultery, inevitably rises. The series examines the uncertainties engendered when liberated from traditional norms. What are the rules, the approaches? How are people meant to react in such a situation? And contrary to many depictions of adultery, there are no toxic men or heartless homewreckers here – the guilty parties are observed with intense sympathy.
Joe Alwyn and Jemima Kirke as Nick and Melissa. Photo: BBC
Comparisons to Normal People are unavoidable, especially when a lot of those involved in that series return for Conversations With Friends. The sunny, springtime visuals – the lenses flaring with the warmth of the season, natural light pouring beautifully through mundane interiors – resumes the former atmosphere. There's also the consumptive ubiquity of technology, in which tiffs are resolved via email or by text. It's like the two series exist in a shared Rooneyverse.
Although the relationship between Frances and Nick grows to be more and more touching, their intimacy deflates because of the extramarital circumstances. They just don’t spark the same sort of fire as Marianne and Connell. Even the sex scenes, though wonderfully shot and choreographed, are doused with impermanence.
Bobbi and Melissa often appear like decently written appendages. Until certain revelations later in the series, they’re merely functional as threats to Frances and Nick’s relationship. Bobbi, in particular, can be hard to like – slotting into an argumentative zoomer stereotype, with whom everyone dreads a debate.
Conversations With Friends doesn’t provide the same punches to the heart and stomach that Normal People achieved, but still embraces you into a slow, modern, sunkissed romance that gradually unlocks the souls of its characters. This critic wouldn’t care that much if Bobbi and Melissa disappeared forever, but letting go of the gentle love between Frances and Nick will be a tough divorce.
Conversations With Friends lands on Sunday 15 May on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer.
|What||Conversations With Friends, BBC Three review|
15 May 22 – 15 May 23, ON BBC THREE / BBC iPLAYER
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