The adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel follows college students Bobbi and Frances as their lives become entangled with an elderly couple
But Rooney’s first novel is a more complicated proposition than normal people‘s quiet but searing love story that was so easy to find. A messy cross of desire, jealousy and pride conversations with friends follows Frances, a humble literature student played by newcomer Alison Oliver, and her outgoing and outspoken best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi (American honey‘s Sasha Lane). At a performance of their feminist poetry, they meet Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a writer in her 30s who invites the couple into the demanding life she shares with husband Nick (Joe Alwyn).
With director Lenny Abrahamson once again at the helm of a Sally Rooney adaptation, there can be no doubt conversations with friends is rooted in the Rooniverse founded by his uber-successful brother, normal people: a dreamy Dublin, alternately drizzly and sun-kissed, teeming with intellectuals whose idea of easy conversation is to dissect capitalism, the institution of marriage and the cultural value of the written word. Nobody says exactly what they mean, but communicates through meaningful looks, flickering facial expressions and halting half-sentences that hurt with longing. The sex scenes are blurry, breathy and wonderfully authentic.
As the four become entangled, Bobbi develops a crush on the confident Melissa, while Frances becomes attracted to Nick, a handsome but aimless actor with whom she begins a dangerous affair. The consequences of this romantic exploration inevitably begin in Nick and Melissa’s slowly crumbling marriage, France and Bobbi’s intense best friendship, and Frances’ own burgeoning sense of identity.
Oliver is compelling as a young woman cautiously crossing the boundaries of early adulthood – but it feels claustrophobic to be so firmly anchored in her point of view as the story is being told. Her counterpart, Lane’s newly Americanized Bobbi, brings out the best in her as the volatile power dynamic oscillates between them.
The show excels at transferring the novel’s reliance on texts and emails to the screen, and Oliver manages to maintain interest throughout the many scenes in which she anxiously texts Nick, waiting for him answers. That the long messages between Frances and Bobbi are relayed as voice-overs instead emphasizes the deeper roots of this friendship versus the affair on stilts that is the weak link of this adaptation.
Alwyn’s boyishness has been somewhat veiled by a beard and a hoarse voice that hovers somewhere remotely close to Irish, but he just isn’t lived enough for the character of Nick. Together, he and Frances lack the chemistry and urgency that could justify their actions.
Much more compelling are the maturity versus attitude conflicts between people in their early 20s and mid-30s, the rocky fragility of female friendships, Frances’ torturous battle with endometriosis, and everything Kirke does as the demure Melissa who deserves more screen time.
From where normal people constantly ran hot conversations with friends has trouble warming up. With lengthy stretches where very little happens, the overly long 12-episode run dilutes the intensity of relationships that end up feeling inconsequential. Where the novel pulsed with life and ideas, this feels fleeting – its sluggish and meandering pace encourages you to let the story overwhelm you, but also risks being washed away all too quickly in the pop culture consciousness.
conversations with friends is streamed on BBC iPlayer.