Normal People is both a faithful adaptation and a stunning small-screen romance boasting more tenderness and intimacy than you thought possible. It might even be better than the book.
This review of Normal People is spoiler-free.
There is no – and I say this pretty confidently – genre in film or TV more overdone than the coming-of-age drama, especially in our enlightened times of direct-to-binge streaming distribution. Netflix is packed with the things – one even came out yesterday. But Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s beloved novel, is different in most of the ways that count. Sure, all 12 half-hour episodes are available on iPlayer (it’s also airing two at a time every Monday night for the next few weeks), but unlike the weaker efforts that are burdened by cliché and insufferable characters, this romance is transporting, rich in true-to-life details of character and setting, and fizzing with chemistry.
Most of that chemistry comes from Daisy Edgar-Jones and the debuting Paul Mescal, the two well-chosen leads who play Marianne and Connell, the small-town lovers at the heart of this tale of opposites attracting. The first and most crucial difference between them is that Marianne is a victim of ruthless classmates whereas Connell is well-liked in a way that perhaps he’d like not to be, given that he stands somewhat apart even among his friends; he’s a good lad but susceptible to peer pressure, among other things.
Normal People, a BBC/Hulu collaboration adapted by Rooney herself with Alice Birch, traces the on-again-off-again four-year relationship between Marianne and Connell as they transition from the sixth form to university and endure all the ups and downs of growing up within each other’s orbit. It’s littered with pitch-perfect reproductions of the highs and lows inherent in young love and plays like a collection of all your best and worst memories; it’s hard to imagine a stronger evocation of those varied, tumultuous emotions than what is provided here.
Rarely does an on-screen romance so easily capture the awkwardness of real-life ones. The inscrutable workings of a bra strap, always played for comic relief in such things, works as a metaphor for all of Normal People, and the tentative yet tender way we navigate unfamiliar situations with people we care for. Lenny Abrahamson, who directs alongside Hettie Macdonald, is able to capture this sense of fumbling intimacy with the help of Ita O’Brien, a specialist coordinator who also worked on Netflix’s good but very different Sex Education. When held up against those kinds of prominent and popular genre shows, Normal People feels almost anti-mainstream; it’s so informed by mundane details and reliant on its performances that the overall sense is of having privileged access to two lives we ordinarily wouldn’t.
The transporting power of literature is transplanted here to a charming television drama that imbues that story framework with all the powerful benefits of performance and visual storytelling. It’s the best of both worlds, and a rare adaptation that might be better than its source material, though be careful in which crowds you repeat that. Either way, so many of mine and likely your formative experiences are bundled in this handsome and pared-down work that it’s difficult to argue the show is anything but a triumph.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.