Beginning in a small village in the West of Ireland, Normal People follows the lives of two teenagers, Connall and Marianne, who begin a secret fling. Connall, handsome, sporty, popular, has very little to do with Marianne, fiercely intelligent but a loner maligned by her classmates, until they eventually strike up conversation at her house, where Connall’s mother works as a cleaner. The first episode is not even complete before Marianne confesses her feelings for him and they begin to sleep together. He stresses that their relationship must remain secret which, while he may think is what she also wants, is shown to be inherently cruel and subjecting. As they begin to spend more and more time together, they remain strangers at school, at most swapping fleeting glances as they walk past each other in the corridor. The series tracks their on-off relationship as they both go to Trinity College in Dublin, and see their fortunes swap starkly, as Connall struggles to settle into university life while Marianne’s self-confidence soars and she finds herself with a solid group of friends. As we follow their progress through university life with Trinity and South Dublin as the stunning backdrop, so much is said (and left unsaid) about the fragility of student life as well as the purity and naivety of our first experiences. Connall’s receipt of a scholarship and the wealth of opportunities this enables him to access underlines the importance of financial aid in the modern climate and the elitism that this prompts from some of Marianne’s entourage is all too common and real at university across Ireland and the UK.
Rooney’s novel, and hence the show adapted from it, has often been hailed as a quintessentially ‘millennial’ portrayal of love and sex. It’s worth noting that technology plays very little role in the lives of Connall and Marianne on screen, text messages and video calls being the only markers placing their story in the modern-day. The events that occur, Connall’s success on the GAA field, their love for literature, and their time at Trinity College, Dublin, where they both attend fancy parties and literary magazines are mostly timeless. It is really only thematically that the show tackles archetypal millennial questions of masculinity, sex and romance. Connall’s shyness and difficulty with expressing his emotions to anyone but Marianne are synonymous with the struggles of many young men in the modern-day, who still feel societal pressure not to display emotion and discuss the things that trouble them. The scenes portraying his struggle with mental health are particularly poignant and powerful for their candid, unrestricted representation of the effect of depression on young people’s lives. So many depictions of young love in film and television tend to trivialise and deprive it of meaning or are written in such a way that excludes other generations from appreciating them. It is one of Normal People’s great strengths that it unreservedly gets across the raw emotion, passion and pain felt by the protagonists throughout their teenage and young adult lives, while still remaining watchable for audiences from all generations. As a result, we are left with a viewing experience that feels authentic and honest, packed with unapologetically graphic sex scenes that offer thought-provoking analysis into the ethics of submission in relationships, particularly during Marianne’s time as an Erasmus student in Sweden.
It wouldn’t be fair to review Normal People without paying homage to the excellence of the acting, not only from the superb Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as the leads (the latter’s Irish accent being incredibly impressive given her upbringing in the UK) but also from Fionn O’Shea as Jamie, Aislín McGuckin as Marianne’s seemingly emotionless mother and Sarah Greene as Connall’s, whose character so encapsulates Irish motherhood. The authenticity of the series is greatly enhanced by the predominantly Irish cast, and the cinematography around the fictional town of Carricklea, in particular, is breathtaking.
The TV series manages to go a step further than the novel in presenting so many of the events and characters feel deeply familiar and relatable. Aided by the nature of the medium, the adaptation has capitalised on visual imagery to remove some of the restraints that I felt were inherent in the book. It’s nonetheless faithful to the original work, helped by the fact that Rooney collaborated with Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe to write the script, with the direction of the series divided in half between Hettie Macdonald and Academy Award-nominated Irish director Lenny Abrahamson (Room, What Richard Did, Adam and Paul.)
Normal People is a frank account of the formative sexual and romantic experiences that shape the lives of two Irish teenagers who rely heavily on each other to develop as people in an uncertain world. As the title suggests, it is highly relatable and the ease with which you can identify with the characters as a spectator is exemplary. What better time than the New Normal to look into the lives of two extraordinary, ‘normal,’ people…