Five years ago, I read Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, shortly after it was published. The book arrived in the mail, sent from Ireland by my late sister. There was no note, no explanation. I recognized the handwriting on the envelope. And I knew that no explanation was needed; the message was, “Read this.” There would be something important about it.
I duly read it, at first perplexed by the biting, spiky dialogue and the internal thoughts of Frances, the young woman at its core. Then swept along by its rhythm and the emotional tumult of Frances’s life in Dublin, I came to its final shattering words: “Come and get me.” No one who has read it can forget the shock of that. Yep, an important novel.
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Conversations with Friends (streams on Amazon Prime Video) arrives as Rooney is universally recognized as a major writer of our time. One knows that because she’s been called the “first great millennial novelist,” been dismissed as a writer of souped-up, morbid romance, and there was a major fuss two years ago about the TV adaptation of her novel Normal People. Admired or disparaged, her material matters. Why? It sticks to you.
Here in an adaptation by the same Irish and British BBC/Hulu team that made Normal People (that’s on CBC Gem). The series asks the same question as the novel: What do you do with desires and impulses you know you don’t understand? It’s especially fraught if you’re a 21-year-old woman, soon to finish university and tight with a girlfriend who was your lover, and is now your closest friend. That’s the situation of Frances (Alison Oliver, in her first TV or film role) who performs spoken word poetry with that closest fried Bobbi (Sasha Lane), a woman who has the energy and daring that Frances lacks.
They are kind to each other, these two, and together have a dynamic that draws the attention of others. The important others here are successful thirtysomething writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke from Girls) and her handsome actor husband Nick (Joe Alwyn). The married couple take up Bobbi and Frances like a cause, inviting them to dinner, to parties and introducing them to friends. It seems Bobbi might have a thing for Melissa and it might be reciprocated. What’s crystal clear is that Frances has a crush on Nick.
The evolution of that affair is the story of the series (12 half-hour episodes) and it is so, so slow burning that the delicacy of it is exquisite. Frances is every young person who is unsure, pretending to be unknowable, articulate about a lot of things, except herself. The series, like the novel, is about a coming-of-age crush, a life-changing one that offers a liminal space where the character waits, letting the experience inform and mould them for the future.
Without the interiority of the novel much depends here on Alison Oliver as Frances to deliver a novel’s worth of dramatic complexity in her bearing, her face, her eyes, glances and physical reactions. And she’s superb, a perambulating bundle of optimism and fear, glancing at her phone, staring at the passing scenery from a train, looking at Nick with grave, unwavering eyes, once it’s got to the actual point where they can look at each other directly.
The series is gorgeously made, sensitive to the Dublin setting in an unusual way, aware of the texture of the place, away from what the tourists gaze at. It’s like a love-letter to ordinary Dublin with its street-level perspective on unglamorous roads as a Luas tram softly turns a corner, or the rhythm of the local DART train taking Frances along the seafronts of Sandymount and Blackrock to Monkstown, and you can practically smell the salt air in the gentle but chilly summer twilight. In a series that is all about sensitivity and alertness and growing up, the embracing of a lived-in Dublin is subtly important.
This is all to say I adore it and should include a caveat. It’s not for everyone and, lacking the lacerating tension of the adaptation of Normal People, you could say that not much happens. What carries it along is its gentle sensitivity and you must be primed to accept delivery of it. There are no easy answers in it; it’s messy. You could ask: Do Melissa and Nick annex Bobbi and Frances or is it the other way around? Or you could just surrender to its astute perception and it will stick with you.
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