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Normal People - First two episodes reviewed

Normal People

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

FIRST up, I have to confess that I haven’t read Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, so I had no sense of expectation barring the hype that was surrounding Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald’s television adaptation.

Having switched on to the absorbing first two episodes, however, I have to say I’m hooked. Beautifully shot and acted, this is an emotionally honest and utterly compelling look at first love – in all its wonder, awkwardness and naivety.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal (in his first television role) play the lead characters, Marianne and Connell, and succeed in almost immediately endearing themselves to you.

The first two episodes, split into half an hour instalments, took time to establish these two seemingly opposite characters. For while Connell is sensitive but charismatic – a student who excels in the classroom and on the sports field – Marianne is more abrasive, if no less intelligent.

When we first see Marianne, she’s back-talking to her teachers, inviting suspicions that she thinks a lot of herself and might not be that likeable.

But a few scenes later, the reasons behind her ‘confidence’ are clear. She’s the product of a tough family – a highly successful mother who expects similarly high standards of her daughter. And an uncaring, chauvinistic brother. Her father is nowhere in sight.

It’s against this backdrop that Marianne finds herself having to project a smartness and confidence she doesn’t really feel inside. Sure, she knows she’s clever (as her school results suggest) but she feels ugly on the inside and alone.

Connell, on the other hand, is riding high off recent sporting success, gets on well with his group of friends (who he drives around regularly) as well as his teachers, and even has the hot blonde classmate hankering after him.

His mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s mother, which affords the two student some time together when Connell goes to pick his mother up. And it’s during such moments that the two slowly realise they have things in common and even like each other.

Soon, they are taking the first tentative steps to a secret romance. A kiss, followed by sex… in Marianne’s case, her first time.

Connell wants the relationship to be their secret. And Marianne doesn’t mind. But she’s upset when one of Connell’s friends belittles her for rejecting his playful advances (calling her a “flat-chested bitch”). Connell doesn’t defend her. He doesn’t say anything.

But when they next meet, Marianne challenges him. And it’s then that Connell realises the extent of his own feelings for her. He’d miss their get togethers… and not just because of the sex.

The thing that stands out about Normal People is – like its name suggests – that it’s dealing with normal, everyday people. The feelings on display are all relatable, from the early exhilaration of being in love to the awkwardness that comes with it.

People make mistakes. Feelings are hurt. There’s a naivety that’s admirable, even when it misguides them.

Edgar-Jones and Mescal are faultless in their portrayal of these kids. They’re consistently engaging and never precocious. Better, their relationship feels authentic and not forced.

We can laugh with them, while perhaps reflecting on our own first experiences of being in love, and we feel for them whenever the chips are down.

And while sexually explicit for a show depicting school-age love, the direction never feels voyeuristic. Rather, it’s intimate and respectful. Flesh isn’t shown for the sake of it, and even then not everything is on show. Where US shows such as Euphoria exist to shock and provoke (and do so well), this feels like a refreshing antidote… a show that is content to celebrate love and youth without the need to surround it in darkness or deviance.

For this, Abrahamson and Macdonald deserve maximum credit. It’s frank without being perverse, and adult without being condescending towards its subjects or audience. There’s so much to admire.

Where their relationship goes from here (and adverts have revealed that the two will meet up in later life) is only to be guessed at for this particular viewer. But time spent in the company of these characters already looks set to become one of my weekly TV treats.