Where do we find entertainment these days? On our laptops and in our living rooms. The streaming options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. So, in this weekly feature, I review a movie or series that might otherwise be easy to overlook.
The series: “Normal People” (Season 1, 12 episodes, 2020)
Where to see it:
Based on the best-selling 2018 novel by Sally Rooney, “Normal People” follows the evolving relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), who grew up in the same town in Ireland’s County Sligo. We meet them as high schoolers: Both are intellectual achievers, but Connell is a beloved athlete and Marianne a pariah. Social class separates them, too: Connell’s mom (Sarah Greene) cleans the mansion where Marianne’s mom (Aislín McGuckin) presides.
For all their differences — and frequent misunderstandings and breakups — the two are drawn inexorably together. As in the novel, the series follows them to Trinity College Dublin, where their positions initially flip. The sophisticated Marianne fits in easily with her monied fellow students, while Connell feels like a shy, bumbling hick. As their university years pass, and the two pair up with other people and experiment, they just can’t seem to leave each other alone for long.
Will you like it?
Six hours of TV dedicated to two mercurial young people’s on-again-off-again romance? If you’ve read Rooney’s book, you already know whether this is for you. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald, “Normal People” has the same strengths and weaknesses as its source. It’s painfully true to life, it’s moving, and it gives microscopic attention to emotional shifts that not everyone will find worthy of such scrutiny.
If you do, though, the rawness of the feelings expressed by the two talented lead actors could sometimes take your breath away. So could Rooney’s insights into the ways people hurt each other — and themselves — without meaning to.
The series features unusually explicit sex scenes, but they don’t feel exploitative. More honest than swoony, they’re another way to explore the characters’ interior landscapes.
While “Normal People” is no Nicholas Sparks flick, it does have a stylistic romanticism the book lacks. Working with minimal plot elements, the filmmakers fill in the cracks with atmospheric visuals and a lushly wistful soundtrack featuring Imogen Heap, Elliott Smith, Nerina Pallot’s cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and many more. If it’s possible to create gritty realism in the style of a blissed-out music video, this is it.
Much like the novel, the series pulled me in from the first scene, only to leave me a little exhausted and inattentive by the end. But the story’s intimacy and truth are hard to shake. For all their intellectual pretensions, Marianne and Connell really are “normal people,” having experiences that countless awkward, sensitive young people have had before them. Their very ordinariness gives their story its wrenching poignancy.
If you like this, try...
The Souvenir (free with Amazon Prime Video, rentable elsewhere): Joanna Hogg’s elliptical 2019 drama about a film student’s ill-fated romance is set in the 1980s but resembles “Normal People” in capturing the tremulous, volatile quality of young people’s emotions and the loneliness of living away from home for the first time.
Me Without You (free on Kanopy, rentable elsewhere): If “Normal People” gives romance the emo-music-video treatment, this 2001 British film does the same for a friendship, following two women (Michelle Williams and Anna Friel) from their tween years into adulthood. I defy anyone who grew up in the 1970s or ’80s not to get a little misty over this one.
“Dublin Murders” (on Starz): Want more of those misty Irish greens and grays and simmering class tensions? Perhaps with a main course of murder? Element Pictures, which produced “Normal People,” also made this 2019 adaptation of Tana French’s mystery novels In the Woods and The Likeness. While condensing the two books’ finely woven plots into one sort-of plot was not a good idea (to put it mildly), the show has many pleasures. Chief among them is star Sarah Greene, who’s just as likable as hard-nosed detective Cassie Maddox as she is as Connell’s scrappy single mom.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Love Will Tear Them Apart"