Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” is one of those tales of two people who always find their way back to each other no matter where life takes them. The best way to describe it would be to compare it to another bestseller, David Nicholls’ “One Day”. One Day is another time-travelling story, and it and Normal People are so alike that Rooney’s novel could act as a prequel with the events of One Day acting like everything that happens after Normal People ends. Of course, the contexts are very different, and the diverse casts of characters are not so clearly paralleled, but the passion is still there; the evocative nature of the central couples pours from every moment of both narratives, and therein lies their correlation.
I would go so far as to say that the major difference between the two is their respective screen adaptations. The One Day adaptation made its way to the silver screen in 2011, resulting in an effort that, in my eyes, can only be considered a tragic failure. The book details intense emotional damage and repression of deep longing between the leads, none of which made it to the screen, leaving only a shell of what was a genuinely special literary experience. Normal People, on the other hand, received a much better treatment which released earlier this year courtesy of the BBC and Hulu.
The titular Normal People are Marianne and Connell (Daisey Edgar-Jones & Paul Mescal), whom we meet going to highschool together in Sligo where they lead drastically different lives. Marianne is a loner, one ostracised and bullied because of her coldness and affluent background. Connell is a sports star; popular but quiet and firmly working class, so much so that his mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family. They are both smart, and despite Connell not appearing so, they are both dreadfully lonely. Slowly but surely they find each other and begin a passionate, but misguided love affair— one hampered by fatuous school ground politics, yet also one that changes them forever.
They go on to weave through each other’s lives like water through a riverbed, with a constant flow that cannot escape the finality of ending in something larger. Time changes them, wearing them down and sparking them up as it sees fit, the only constant throughout being that they clearly feel so much for one another; they just never say it. More than anything else the pair form themselves over our years with them, they learn to express themselves, even if only to the other. It is a beautiful expression of growth so eloquently brought to life on the screen, a fact realised by the unbelievable talents who lead the show.
Edgar-Jones and Mescal embody their characters with such intimacy and zeal that they often become utterly absorbing. The only other on-screen couple capable of generating this much pure chemistry that I could not move my eyes off them are James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”, another tale of fate intertwining people. Both sets of performances face the constant turbulence and weight of life taring them apart, and it is in the moments between, when they struggle to pick up the pieces, that their performances become works of devastating genius. Those moments of silent passion or silent despair, moments of inescapable lonely reflection, where the only acting to do is located entirely within the face, in those moments these performances are immortal.
The enormous talent behind the camera deserves praise too. Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald split the series down the middle and direct six episodes each, both do an excellent job. The show knows the exact pace it needs to go at every episode, which is usually rather slow, but never methodical. All 12 episodes are perfect concoctions of what it is like to be a young adult, with all the awkwardness, excitement, sentimentality, love, and despair that period of life has to offer. There is so much poured into the show that your just as likely to catch yourself smiling are you are to cringe or cry, it is one big loveable rollercoaster.
And yet for every bit of youthful lust and love the show has something to say, and at times it can be quite confronting. Fitting in is never easy, and it is not easy for Marianne or Connell, causing them great distress. There is a certain inexplicable agony Normal People touches on detailing how people can surround you and yet you can still be alone, whether it be at home with family or away studying. It makes your very soul decay, and both our leads go through that on their journeys, as even with friends coming and going they remain emotionally crippled and often despondent.
Ultimately Marianne and Connell come to find life’s cruellest blow is that as time heals old wounds, new ones emerge, and the inevitability of that often smothers Normal People, but it manages to become the shows greatest asset because when you follow people through the depths of despair, you earn the reward of seeing how they make it out the other side.
I think if Normal People teaches anything, it is that going through life alone will break you, and if you are lucky enough to find someone, hold on for as long and tightly as you can. Just remember to let go when it comes to the end of the line. Who knows, maybe you will meet again, life is funny that way.
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