In ‘Normal People’, Irish specificity competes with Hollywood cliche
Given that almost every film and TV show I’ve watched during this emotionally-draining quarantine has made me cry, it’s remarkable how unmoved I was by the 12-part adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. This is even truer when you consider how close the story’s setting is to my own life: two young people from Co. Sligo move to Dublin for college: when again in my life will there be a major miniseries chronicling the specific terms of my youth? Yet as much as I enjoyed the novelty of Normal People, including seeing a number of friends pop up in cameos, and a scene in which my own college doubles for a Swedish one, the familiarity only worked to suppress any suspension of disbelief and highlighted the profound artifice of it all. I know a lot of people, but I don’t know anyone like the characters on Normal People, because real human beings could never be this hard to read.
Connell and Marianne (Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones) are the eponymous normies whose relationship we track over a number of years during these 12 episodes, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie MacDonald (with a noticeable quality gap, it must be said, between those directed by the Oscar nominated Room filmmaker and those by Casualty and Doctor Who album MacDonald). There is undeniably a theatrical curiosity to the power shifts we witness between them: in the first episode Connell is a popular GAA player who is embarrassed by his lust for Marianne; by midway through the series he’s a lonely outsider in Trinity while she’s at the heart of the college’s social sphere.
However the energy they embody is generally all there is: they are archetypes, pretty unique ones in fairness, but they are not three-dimensional people, and this can be seen in the extent to which the series feels the need to tell us things about them rather than show us. Connell is, apparently, an English prodigy, who sends stories into journals and ends up editing a literary magazine, but we never hear anything insightful he’s written. His poor conversational skills are recognisable in a certain type of Irish man, and Mescal is excellent at capturing the nervousness of an intellectual inferiority complex bred through years of macho jostling, but there should be some evidence of hidden genius and this never comes. The closest we get is when he challenges some debate society boys by asserting that a far-right speaker should not be invited to Trinity. He’s got good politics but we have no idea where he got them.
Marianne, meanwhile, is utterly impossible to decode beyond a sheen of seriousness and an affinity for being the smartest person in the room, until the final few episodes when we’re allowed connect the dots with a history of abusive behaviour at home and her enforced quietness starts to make sense; but this isn’t the sort of explanation you save for the 11th of 12 episodes, because by that point we’ve given up trying to figure her out.
Their initial connection to one another makes sense, but beyond Connell’s innate niceness relative to the obnoxious Trinity men Marianne dates in the interim, there is little to suggest they are destined to be together. Their conversations revolve almost exclusively around analysing themselves; they don’t so much as bond over bitching about classmates, or shared passion for a particular author; any of the cliches that would at least feel tangible to an Irish student. I have never had a conversation with a friend or a lover quite as dull as those had by Connell and Marianne; and so I cannot begin to understand what these people would see in each other… they’re not even funny.
This is exacerbated when an episode is spent at an Italian villa and the show aims to recreate scenes from Call Me By Your Name: all I could think of was the poetry uttered by the characters in that film, that was nowhere to be found here. I have speculated that maybe most Irish people don’t actually say anything particularly cinematic: maybe I’m simply experiencing a disconnect because of Normal People’s Hollywood production values, but these are in fact closer to how the people around me are. But I don’t think that’s true, and I think if I published my text message conversations with some of my friends they would make for more thrilling, unpredictable and amusing reads than Rooney’s novel or the script for this series.
In fact, the most affecting scene in any of the episodes for me was a wordless one: Connell has been sleeping with Marianne secretly after school, and they run into each other at a nightclub where he stares at her dancing to a remix of “Hey Now” by London Grammar and a look of realisation flashes across his face that she is — in fact — amazing; this reminded me of a very specific type of yearning one begins to experience towards the tail end of school when the sterile interactions of the school environment begin to transition into something more adult and more nuanced; it also has a slight similarity to the episode of Girls when Hannah bumps into Adam at a party and realises for the first time that he exists outside their apartment-bound hook-ups.
Oddly enough, the next occasion where their relationship starts to make more sense to me is when Marianne goes to Sweden on Erasmus and they begin talking over Skype — I don’t know whether it’s the things they say or the way they smile at each other, but their conversations through a screen felt significantly more true to life than any they had in person (the only explanation being that it removed the show’s instinct to just launch into a sex scene at any given opportunity, and the removal of that tension opened up space for a more interesting physical dynamic to emerge).
It’s a genuine treat to see Dublin, Sligo etc. take such a prime spot on the international TV stage and the novelty element of Normal People will do wonders for how it’s celebrated here in Ireland. I really need to, however, have a conversation with an American or British fan of this series to determine exactly why it won their hearts over, because I although I enjoyed parts of it immensely, and have to recognise that it’s fabulously directed and very well performed for the most part, I can’t quite see the appeal of such a uniquely Irish narrative for someone who doesn’t have a direct, personal investment in that version of reality.