IIt’s always seemed unlikely that Conversations with Friends, the new Hulu and BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s first novel, could repeat Normal People’s lightning bolt. The latter show, another Hulu/BBC production based on Rooney’s second best-selling novel and released in April 2020, was the rare combination of the right material at the right time. Its straightforward if elegantly told premise – a love story between boy and girl spanning several years – and naturalistic, really hot Depictions of physical intimacy (one sex scene lasted 9 minutes and 24 seconds, a full third of the episode) struck a chord in a period of mass isolation.
Conversations with friends are harder to sell. The book and series follow a delicate square of sex and friendship between two best friends/ex-lovers and an elderly couple – neither of whom, in classic Rooney fashion, seem to be part of their own motivations. It’s a darker mess than Normal People, made even more inaccessible by the characters’ psychological opacity and general reluctance to speak. Key characters from Normal People – Irish production company Element Pictures, director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Alice Birch – strive for a similar quiet, meditative realism in Conversations, with characters communicating more frequently and meaningfully via text and email. (Rooney co-wrote the first half of Normal People, but has no official role on the series.)
Adopting both Rooney’s understated style and digital communications is a tall order, and the loss through translation is a palpable lack. Conversations with Friends is often beautifully and unflinchingly naturalistic – we see the characters passing through, getting dressed, texting with clear timestamps for the summer of 2019 – but keeps the characters concise, two-dimensional and frustratingly inscrutable. It’s an oddly flat mix – pretty people in pretty places, decent acting (particularly from leads Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn), and well-choreographed, vérité sex scenes that mostly go cold.
As in the book, the show takes the perspective of Frances, played by Irish newcomer Oliver, a 21-year-old university student who recites spoken word with Bobbi (American Honey’s Sasha Lane) and catches the attention of thirty-year-old Melissa (Girls’ Jemima). pulls Kirke), an essayist and fine spirit. In the book, Frances and Melissa’s husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn), both uncomfortable with social situations, flirt via email before embarking on an affair. On screen, it happens over the course of two episodes, with little said between them, save for suspended sentences. “I’ll write you an email. It’ll be full of compliments in full sentences,” Nick tells her in the first episode after attending her poetry performance. “We don’t even have to make eye contact,” she replies. To quote Frances in any tense situation: OK.
Like Normal People’s Marianne, Frances is a typical Rooney protagonist: intellectual, thin, confident when expressing her left-wing views, aloof and speechless when expressing her feelings. What can be described as neuroticism in the book comes across as coldness, inexplicable wordlessness on the screen. Nick and Frances are two awkward people who often act awkwardly, passing that uneasiness — or, given how little we can make out of these characters, their emptiness — to the audience. Her numerous sex scenes, which like Normal People employ an intimacy coordinator, are expertly choreographed and sensitively filmed, but they lack a fundamental chemistry — movements devoid of emotion. When Frances tells him in bed on vacation in Croatia with Bobbi and Melissa that she doubts his interest in her because “you don’t always seem so enthusiastic,” he replies that she isn’t – “It’s me, I am.” just embarrassing.” She replies, “Me too, of course,” and they kiss.
That awkwardness runs through the entire 12-episode season, which struggles to capture Rooney’s psychological insights into the absurd performances and isolation of millennial life. This is partly due to Rooney’s minimalist style – the prose consists mostly of action and dialogue, with the characters being reluctant to make their points. The novel relies heavily on digital communication – Rooney didn’t earn her reputation as a pioneering millennial author for nothing – which is notoriously difficult to bring to screen. Someone staring at their phone is inherently uncinematic.
That being said, I found the show’s leisurely presentation of messages — a chat history available to the audience, where characters are observed using autocorrect, typing, and erasing — as one of the most impressive elements, in part because it is still rare to see the weight of digital communication on our lives accurately reflected on the screen. As the physical talks subside and we wonder why either party wanted this affair or stuck to this friendship, the lyrics — and France’s handling of it — are telling. Her exchanges with Nick and Bobbi — shown to the viewer and told aloud during longer messages — show the gap between what’s being said and what’s being felt in a way the conversations just don’t. Frances eyes her phone, flips through old messages (“Are we still having an affair?”), dwells on past words, fixates. The lyrics have the air of specific intimacy (lowercase nick lyrics) and the thrill of secrecy. That they resonate with both Frances and the viewer – we’re also on her phone – adds a dimension to her emotions, despair and confusion that is flattened by her personal demeanor.
Ironically, it’s the bottled talks that hamper the show. Frances and Bobbi are said to be close, but their relationship consists of unconvincing gestures of physical closeness in brief dance floor sequences. It doesn’t help that Lane plays Bobbi so cold and indifferent, making the character’s disdain almost unbearable for most people in the final episodes of the season. You need to earn the characters ability to basically say nothing for several hours, and Conversations with Friends doesn’t.
In other words, like many television shows – imperfect and sometimes unwieldy, sometimes working and sometimes not, it’s a jumble of elements tugging at its illusion. In retrospect, the fact that Normal People made the leap to the screen is remarkable and coincidental. Conversations with Friends took on a tougher task, landing in the huge TV center: easy on the eyes but not as deep as it might be, watchable but unlikely to provoke much discussion.