The Soulful, Sexy Menage A Quatre Of 'Conversations With Friends'
The new adaptation of Sally Rooney's debut novel is a smouldering match for 'Normal People'
Can the BBC’s second Sally Rooney adaptation possibly live up to Normal People mania?
One of the buzziest shows of lockdown, that aching romance between tongue-tied adolescents Connell and Marianne racked up an astonishing 62 million views on iPlayer in 2020, while its leads, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, shot to stardom. Connell’s iconic chain necklace even got its own Instagram account.
Well, if there’s any justice, this sensational follow-up should be just as big of a hit — if not bigger. The creative band is back together, led by director Lenny Abrahamson and co-writer Alice Birch, and they’ve reprised their winning format: 12 extremely moreish half-hour episodes which sensitively tease out everyone’s fraught feelings via charged silences, cryptic text messages and intimate, authentic sex scenes.
Admittedly, it’s not as voraciously carnal as Normal People, but that’s because we’ve moved on from teen lust. Although Conversations with Friends (BBC Three) is actually Rooney’s debut novel, it’s a much more complex and challenging premise.
Frances (played by magnetic newcomer Alison Oliver) is a bisexual student at Trinity College Dublin who performs spoken-word poetry with her ex-girlfriend, Bobbi.
The pair are ushered into a sophisticated adult world when they’re befriended by Melissa, a successful 30-something writer, and her handsome actor husband, Nick. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa; Frances begins a covert affair with Nick.
It’s an inventive ticking time bomb of a menage a quatre, and the fallout is thrilling — and constantly surprising. Oliver, who, like Mescal, is a product of Dublin’s Lir Academy drama school, shares his gift for making an introverted character incredibly compelling.
But Frances is a more contradictory creation, one capable of casual emotional savagery as well as deep vulnerability. She’s at the age where identity is a daily experiment, and she examines herself with clinical detachment, but she can unthinkingly extend that coldness to others too.
It could be too chilly for viewers, but the extraordinary Oliver — in what should be a star-making turn — makes Frances’s inner life so evident, and so stirring, that we are always on her side. Abrahamson effectively lets the camera linger on Oliver’s face as different moods scurry across it.
A flirtatious message from Nick brings a sudden lightness; an ambiguous one sees her puzzled, longing, infuriated. She sometimes seems childlike, lost in this world of grown-ups, sometimes dangerously destructive.
Oliver is brilliantly matched by Joe Alwyn (aka Taylor Swift’s boyfriend) as her lover Nick. Though model handsome with his artfully tousled hair, hipster beard and smouldering sensuality, he draws out Nick’s insecurity.
The pair are endearingly awkward in person, far more articulate in their written messages (the series as a whole is excellent at contrasting technological and "IRL" interactions). But both tend to over-analyse and misinterpret. When they’re in bed together — in gentle scenes with sweet, fumbling moments, panting breaths and palpable connection — they finally communicate honestly.
The excellent cast also features Girls’ Jemima Kirke as Melissa, straining under the pressure to maintain a glamorous façade — and wondering whether her marriage is worth the battle.
Sasha Lane is strong too as the confident, sometimes tyrannical Bobbi, in a vivid portrait of fierce female friendship.
Tommy Tiernan, in a significant departure from his lovable Derry Girls character, is quietly tragic as Frances’s depressed, alcoholic father.
Although the series isn’t as overt as Rooney’s novel in questioning conventional social structures, from monogamous relationships to capitalism, the drama does ask whether we’re being asked to squeeze ourselves into unrealistic roles.
That provocation is balanced with the dreamy, golden-hued cinematography, particularly during the group’s idyllic holiday to Croatia, which makes this an utter joy to watch, as well as an audacious conversation-starter.
Conversations with Friends is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
The Daily Telegraph