Anticipated new drama, partly filmed in Belfast, fails to capture the imagination
Apparently, Element Pictures, the busy production company behind Conversations with Friends (BBC3, Sunday & Monday) bought the rights to Sally Rooney’s debut novel before it began work on the smash-hit Normal People, based on her second book.
It seems the original plan was to turn it into a feature film. Instead, it’s ended up as a series that slavishly follows exactly the same format (12 half-hour episodes) as its television predecessor.
Presumably this was in the hope lightning might strike twice. Well, it hasn’t. I haven’t read any of Rooney’s novels; purely as TV drama, though, Conversations with Friends is no Normal People.
To be fair, it never could be. The latter captured the public imagination in a way few series do. But if director Lenny Abrahamson and producer Ed Guiney insist on making what, in terms of style, tone and structure, is effectively a cover version of their previous hit, unfavourable comparisons are inevitable.
I’ve watched six episodes of Conversations with Friends so far and even by the halfway mark it’s terribly strained. It feels like there simply isn’t enough material to justify those first three hours, let alone three more.
Abrahamson’s low-key, unhurried style — something of a trademark of his by now — worked perfectly for a story as emotionally intense as Normal People, where a furtive glance or a gaze held just that tiny bit too long was loaded with meaning and communicated volumes.
Here, however, the sometimes funereal pacing feels like nothing more than padding. There’s no end of long, repetitive scenes of 21-year-old protagonist Frances walking along the street, looking glumly out the windows of trains and buses, or staring meaningfully into the middle distance.
But meaningful stares will only get you so far. You need some dramatic heft, too, something that’s in short supply here.
Normal People worked because we were invested in Connell and Marianne. We cared what happened to them. It’s harder to care about the four people caught up in a romantic quadrangle in Conversations with Friends when they’re largely unlikeable.
None more so than Frances (Alison Oliver, like Paul Mescal before her, a screen newcomer), a part-time poet.
She and her former lover-turned-best friend Bobbi (Irish in the book but here played by American Sasha Lane), both final-year Trinity students, perform her spoken-word ditties to uncommonly large and appreciative audiences in Dublin clubs.
Frances is quiet and retiring to the point of barely being there — although her reticence supposedly conceals a blazing intelligence. We have to take that on trust, because there’s nothing here to suggest it.
Bobbi, in contrast, is mouthy, judgemental and confrontational, with a disparaging remark for pretty much everyone and everything.
They catch the eye of successful English writer Melissa (another character who was Irish in the book), played by Jemima Kirke, who’s married to slightly famous actor Nick (Joe Alwyn).
There’s nothing in the script to explain why Melissa should be so fascinated by these two, yet they’re immediately inducted into the older couple’s privileged bubble-world of dinner parties and book launches, and even invited on holiday to Croatia.
Bobbi and Melissa flirt and share a kiss, but Alison and Nick tumble into a passionate affair. As in Normal People, the sex scenes are plentiful and believable, though never gratuitous.
If only the characters were half as appealing to us as they are to one another.
Alwyn is too anaemic (and probably too young) to convince as the worldly older man.
The more we see of Alison, the more she comes across as needy, mopey, petulant and self-absorbed, like a scowling child among the adults. Her solipsism drains any sympathy we might have for her — which is quite a drawback when hers is the only point of view we have.
This is hardly Oliver’s fault; she can only play what’s written. Whatever worked on the page doesn’t seem to have translated so well to the screen this time. This is slow, dull, drawn-out stuff.
Six hours is a lot of time to spend splashing around in shallow waters.