Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) are best friends, ex-lovers, still inseparable. Their lives explode when they meet and become dangerously close to older married couple Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and Nick (Joe Alwyn). Everything they know about love is then put to the test.
Airing on: BBC Three
Few people can telegraph suffering and desire like Sally Rooney. Irish novelist rocketed to stratospheric fame with two novels charting these painfully intertwined emotions, 2017’s Conversations with friends and Normal people, which followed just a year later. The latter was the first to be adapted for television, an instant hit that told a deeply felt story of young love saturating us in the loneliest pandemic-enforced lockdowns. There was never any doubt that Rooney’s seminal novel would receive the same treatment — but the page appeal is much more complex to translate on-screen.
True Normal people followed Marianne and Connell as they fell in and out of each other’s lives, from school to college and beyond, Conversations with friends tackles friendship, parenting, career struggles and capitalism, as well as love and relationships. There’s plenty of the latter, but it’s a more splintered focus supported by Frances trying to keep the whole thing afloat. In her first screen appearance, Alison Oliver does her best to convey the insecurity, opacity, narcissism and occasional nihilism of Rooney’s protagonist, always so vivid and sharp on the page in a way that feels almost intrusive in their precision.
Kirke and Lane prove just how important satellite characters can be in a story of tough, tough romance.
On screen, Oliver is split between fraught scenes with a glowing Sasha Lane as Bobbi, whom Frances has always adored for her fearlessness and vim, and her whispered affair with Nick (Joe Alwyn) as she tiptoes around both Bobbi and Nick’s wife Melissa. (Jemima) Kirke), constantly on the run from the myriad problems in their own lives. The frustration that comes from the whirlwind story – Frances is also jealous of Melissa’s writing career, struggles with health issues that leave her in debilitating pain too often, and sees her alcoholic father slowly deteriorate – is certainly intentional, but somewhat unsatisfactory on screen.
Normal people was so poignant for its microscopic focus on Marianne and Connell, with empathetic performances by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal somehow capturing everything that Rooney had confessed to the page. Conversations has a more difficult task – like the book – of honoring the inner lives of four different people, led by the most reluctant, pessimistic and guarded of the group.
There are still tender moments and brief flashes of light – intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien again teams up with director Lenny Abrahamson to provide sex scenes, mainly between Frances and Nick but also Frances and Bobbi, great emotional power, who tell their own story as clearly as the dialogue and the unspoken desire of everyone’s body language. Kirke and Lane prove just how important satellite characters can be in a story of tough, tough romance. Alwyn struggles with the material at times, at his best when Nick is finally allowed to collapse and finally feel something, anything.
It remains a curious, idiosyncratic text, exploring the destructive and childlike aspects of young womanhood in awkward yet familiar ways that Rooney so well portrays. Perhaps a compliment to how good her second novel looked on TV and why the first was such a masterpiece on the page, Conversations with friends will make you desperate to fall in love with the book again.
A charged, often disturbing look at how the strongest feelings of love can tear us apart and scatter what we know about ourselves. Rooney remains a unique voice – but this one might stay on the page better.