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Normal People is a powerful drama with truth and depth

This article is over 3 years, 7 months old
This BBC adaptation brings the complicated—and therefore believable— characters of Sally Rooney’s popular novel to screen, writes Sarah Bates
Issue 2701
Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell in Normal People
Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell in Normal People (Pic: BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu)

Connell and Marianne are the lovers in Normal People—a 12-part dramatisation that’s likely to be the TV highlight of the year for fans of the book.

Based on Sally Rooney’s hugely successful novel, it’s the story of an intense love affair between young people fumbling to find their place in the world.

It follows Connell, played by Paul Mescal, a popular but shy teenager with a gift for sports.

On the face of it, Connell seems to have everything he wants—teenage popularity, a loving mother and academic ability.

But really, he struggles to find his place within his peer group—too bookish for his laddish mates, but also desperately keen to fit in.

Daisy Edgar-Jones’s Marianne—arrogant, middle class and undeniably clever—is the object of his affections.

Mercilessly bullied by her family and peers alike, Marianne has a difficult time of it.

It’s genuinely heartbreaking to see her describe Connell as “nicer than most” after he humiliates her.

Edgar-Jones’s Marianne feels so similar to the novel it’s like she’s tumbled straight off the page.

Meanwhile, it stretches belief to imagine that teenage Connell looks anything like 24 year old Paul Mescal.


Watching Connell ignore Marianne’s bullying—which often comes in the form of sexist taunts about her looks—is stomach churning.

It’s painful to watch him repeatedly tell Marianne that no one at school should know about their relationship. But this doesn’t collapse into the teen romcom tropes of a popular jock and beautiful nerd.

And the sex scenes between them feel very authentic—awkward but tender, joyful and spontaneous.

Despite Marianne and Connell’s quiet confidence, they are both crushed by anxiety.

They’re both so worried about how they fit into this world.

The story spans four years from school right through to the end of university. There’s space to see how teenage Marianne bears very little relation to the postgraduate one. At university, the tables are very much turned.

Marianne finds herself with a plush flat, academic respect, a new boyfriend—and most importantly, a group of friends.

As they both become more aware of what they want from a relationship, it makes things more complicated between them, not less.

Rooney wrote some episodes of Normal People.

One of the great strengths of her work is that the interactions between her characters feels believable.

At just 30 minutes apiece, the first four episodes feel punchy enough.

But at times the tempo starts to drift.

There are probably a few too many soft focus shots of Sligo’s coastline and moody acoustic music.

Nevertheless, Normal People is a good stopgap for anyone waiting for Rooney’s next release.

Released on BBC Iplayer Sunday 26 April, and broadcast on BBC1 at 9pm, Monday 27 April

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