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Normal People - 10 Reasons Why We Loved It

Normal People

Feature by Rob Carnevale

NORMAL People ended as brilliantly as it began on the BBC this week (June 1, 2020), albeit on a note that some fans may have found bittersweet and/or frustrating.

But in keeping with the overall tone of this emotionally involving adaptation of Sally Rooney’s adaptation of her own novel, the series felt honest and real, rather than contrived or manipulated. Hence, the ending – while leaving questions unanswered – felt right and perfectly judged… not to mention tear-jerking in the extreme.

Again, though, it’s a measure of how deeply we’ve come to hold these characters in our affections that the resolution proved to be so poignant.

So, as the dust settled on this first [and possibly only] season, here’s 10 reasons why we loved the show so much…

1) Paul Mescal as Connell – Sure, this was a two-hander in which both young stars shone brightly. But Mescal was, perhaps, the biggest revelation given that this was his first major television role. His Connell was a complex individual – a seemingly popular young man with the world in front of him, who suffered from deep-rooted insecurities. Mescal displayed both charisma and vulnerability, while affording Connell an everyman quality that felt easy to relate to. This was a mature, complex performance that really tapped into the heart and soul of who this young man was and how he was always feeling.

2) Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne – The former Cold Feet ensemble member stepped up to leading lady status just as impressively as Mescal to make her Marianne a deeply troubled yet highly appealing young woman. In the wrong hands, Marianne could have become the type of character who was difficult to like given the innumerable insecurities that bedevilled her character. But Edgar-Jones tapped into the reasoning behind this perfectly to create a tragic portrayal of a young woman whose world view had been shaped by the emotional abuse she had suffered from since childhood.

But that’s not to suggest that Marianne was merely someone who needed saving. Far from it. This was a rounded portrayal of someone who could flourish in the right environment, and with the right support. Hence, Edgar-Jones managed to make Marianne, by turns, haunted, attractive, assertive and vulnerable/exploited… and someone – like Connell – who you really found yourself rooting for in spite of her struggles.

3) Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald (co-directors) – In terms of direction, Normal People had a seductive quality to it that was absolutely mesmerising. Both Abrahamson (a veteran of films such as Room) and Macdonald managed to make the slow-burn approach an asset, rather than a distraction, thereby enhancing the realistic, natural feel of proceedings. This sometimes felt like we were peeking into real life, documentary-style, rather than watching a drama.

Similarly, they found room to make the locations stand out (the Italy episode, in particular, offered some breath-taking vistas), while always giving their performers maximum room to act. There was no need to force the pace because the whole series felt organic in the way that it unfolded. Normal People was often beautiful to watch, yet it could also be heart-breaking, beguiling and inspiring in a quiet kind of way… all thanks to the control exhibited behind the camera by Abrahamson and Macdonald.

4) The sex scenes – It kind of feels borderline ‘pervy’ to be talking about the sex scenes, particularly given how young the two leads were. But while so many shows offer a sensationalist approach, which frequently borders on the shocking [see Euphoria as a prime example], Normal People‘s approach to its sex scenes felt almost, well, normal by comparison.

The sex scenes were graphic [full frontal nudity was involved from both leads]. But it also felt natural and real. It was intimate. True, some of the latter scenes involving Marianne’s character tip-toed into darker, more complex territory. But they were always shot tastefully, which made the impact of Connell’s intervention in the penultimate episode, as Marianne sought to be dominated by him, all the more telling. The sex scenes were pivotal, too, rather than unnecessary. They informed the character’s feelings towards each other and the respect and love they had for each other. Lessons could be learned both for future dramatists and filmmakers, as well as for a young generation who may find alternative sources of sexual viewing [ie, porn or less tasteful films] unnecessarily extreme.

5) Emotional complexity – Rooney’s novel was embraced by a generation for a reason… because it spoke to them. Normal People didn’t shy away from vulnerability or fallibility; rather, it embraced them. Both Marianne and Connell were flawed individuals, capable of making mistakes. Indeed, the frequent misunderstandings between them informed their relationship almost as much as their mutual attraction to each other.

But these were damaged people, in a sense. Connell’s grappling with his feelings of loneliness and isolation were brilliantly realised in the episode that dealt with the fallout from a friend’s suicide. While the persistent insecurity and feelings of shame and unworthiness experienced by Marianne stemmed from a deeply troubled upbringing. Not everything had to be spelled out. But whenever Connell or Marianne opened up, they spoke eloquently or conveyed emotions brilliantly, so that we could both understand where they were coming from and perhaps even relate. At a time when mental health issues have never been more appreciated and understood, this offered a timely reminder of just how fragile young minds can be, and why support and understanding is needed, rather than ridicule or anything more toxic.

But the way that Normal People also examined the fragility of love and the complicated emotions that come with it was just as exemplary – sometimes infuriating, for sure, but always plausible and quite often heart-breaking.

Normal People

6) Locations – Another part of the appeal was the use of location. Ireland came out really well, whether in the rural landscapes and seaside settings of County Wicklow or in the more city-based likes of Dublin. The difference in these two locations, in particular, also helped to inform the character’s behaviours as they sought to either escape the confines and memories of the former, or struggled to cope with the faster pace of life and inherent feelings of loneliness in the latter.

Perhaps best of all, however, was the use of Italy, in one of the series’ standout episodes. On screen, Marianne and Connell are reunited for a weekend stay [with friends] at the Il Casale on Tenuta Verzano, close to the village of Sant’Oreste, on the outskirts of Rome. The villa itself was lovely [and, apparently, available to rent at Airbnb], while the village of Sant’Oreste and its views was absolutely stunning. The scenes in question were among the most seductive the show had to offer.

And that’s not forgetting the snowy landscapes of Gammelstad, in Lulea (Swedish Lapland), which looked picturesque even though they were set against the backdrop of some of the show’s darkest moments.

7) Soundtrack – The use of music was always effective [and affecting] without feeling over-cooked or manipulative. The songs washed over you without pulling you out of any given scene. But you almost always wanted to find out more about them, whether it was Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek (used early on) or Frank Ocean’s Nikes (at a party). The songs always helped to enhance the mood or the emotions at play. And they further included the likes of Never Ending Circles by CHVRCHES, Horn by Nick Drake, Hey Now (Arty remix) by London Grammar, Love Will Tear Us Apart by Nerina Pallot and Dogwood Blossom by Fionn Regan.

8) Connell’s mother – Perhaps the unsung hero of the series, Connell’s mother, Lorraine, provided a genuinely warm presence despite being offered only a handful of scenes. Played by Tony award-winning actor Sarah Green, Lorraine was the type of mother we all yearn for. She was sympathetic and understanding towards her son (offering a stern word, where necessary, but mostly encouragement and emotional support). But she was also an unlikely friend towards Marianne. On two occasions, she offered a warm hug to Marianne that spoke volumes… with a gesture, she was able to provide the comfort and support that Marianne’s own mother never could. Lorraine was a truly endearing presence, whose moments on-screen always enhanced the overall proceedings. If there were but minor criticisms, one was that she should have featured more.

9) I love you – The final episode contained many highlights but perhaps the biggest was the New Year’s Eve moment when Marianne and Connell finally expressed their feelings for each other, in public (see top picture). After weeks [and years] of behaving in secret or getting things wrong when together in public, Marianne and Connell finally felt comfortable enough in themselves and with each other to no longer have to worry about what other people thought of them. Hence, their declaration of love was not only something to be celebrated but was, quite possibly, the most completely romantic moment of the series as a whole. It was beautifully realised without being over-played. And it could so easily have been the finale that those hopeless romantics among viewers had been seeking. Alas, it wasn’t quite to be, which brings us to…

10) The End – For some, this might be a sticking point. Or should we say, for those seeking Hollywood-style ‘happy endings’. But the final, poignant moments between Connell and Marianne felt emotionally authentic and kind of right. As in the novel, Connell was offered a place at a New York university to pursue his writing. Unlike the book, however, he chose to go [in the novel, we’re never told what he decided]. Marianne, however, opted to stay in Dublin to enjoy the life she had created for herself.

Audiences, meanwhile, were left to decide for themselves whether they would get back together after Connell’s year away. But while some will undoubtedly lament the lack of closure, this felt like a suitable place at which to say goodbye. And the optimists among viewers will believe that they did reunite.

As for the final scene itself, it was as complex as we’d come to expect. Both Marianne and Connell acknowledged how good they had been for each other, yet neither wanted to stand in the other’s way. Hence, when Connell expressed doubts about his ability to cope in a big city like New York, or promised to stay loyal to Marianne while away, she both encouraged the former and discouraged the latter, genuinely wanting him to continue to succeed. Likewise, Connell respected Marianne’s decision to remain in Dublin, mindful of the journey he had helped her to undertake in finding her own form of contentment.

Hence, as heart-breaking as the idea of their parting ways undoubtedly was, the decision felt honest and kind of inspirational, much like the series as a whole.