Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) was designed in a lab to make girls swoon. He’s one of the popular kids; handsome and sporty but also quiet, introspective and just a little bit shy. Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones), on the other hand, eats lunch by herself and is only acknowledged when she’s being mocked by classmates or scolded by teachers.
They’re both smart but whereas Connell’s too humble to show it, Marianne acts like school and everyone in it are beneath her. Even so, she can’t help but wonder why Connell starts sleeping with her when he could have any girl he wanted.
Lenny Abrahamson directs the first two episodes of Normal People, adapted from Sally Rooney’s acclaimed novel of the same name. It follows Connell and Marianne’s on/off relationship as they graduate secondary school in Sligo and go to study in Trinity.
Rooney dissected millennial relationships in a post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. She showed a keen understanding of group dynamics, interrogating the shifting social hierarchies that make up student life with razor precision in clean prose, while running the story on an engine of relentless sexual tension.
Sexual tension permeates through the show, surviving the translation from page to screen if not being enhanced by the cinematic treatment. Mescal and Edgar-Jones’ chemistry is off the charts. They turn in sensitive, realistic performances that make you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a blossoming relationship even if both actors are a little too old to play leaving cert students.
When Marianne turns up at Connell’s free house to sleep with him in the second episode, he’s the perfect gentleman. It feels like we’re invading their privacy as he guides her through her first time in an incredibly intimate scene. For once the defensive and closed off Marianne lets down her defenses and is vulnerable.
Abrahamson captures everything in shallow focus and tight close ups; unfussy, confident filmmaking that puts the performances first while looking pretty. It’s realistic, at times painfully so, and restrained but somehow still plays like a coming of age erotic fantasy with the raw portrayal of sex only making the escapism more immersive.
A lifelong Marxist, Rooney reflects on class inequality intermittently throughout her novel. The TV show has yet to delve into these issues in the first two episodes but touches on the differences in the young lovers’ lives.
Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family. While he may be more popular in school, he doesn’t take for granted what she does in life. She knows she’s going to get into a good university while he’s less sure.
Contradicting and evolving social hierarchies made the novel more than just an immersive romance but also an insightful and relevant piece of work. As the show goes on, it’ll be interesting to see if it can manage the same balance. Either way, it’s an irresistible watch.