It’s hard to keep anything under wraps these days, and advance word on this eagerly-awaited adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, was that it wouldn’t disappoint. And, thankfully, it didn’t.
The scene is adroitly set by director Lenny Abrahamson from the opening, as we see Marianne, one of the central characters, strolling down the instantly familiar breeze-blocked corridor of a school, running the gauntlet of the popular boys as they banter with each other and flirt with the queen bee.
Marianne gets her books from her locker, walking between them as they ignore her. But as one boy, Connell, shyly glances at her as she walks past, we know this is a love story that is going to take us on an emotional rollercoaster.
This adaptation hinges on the performances of the central characters of Marianne and Connell, and the casting of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal is pitch-perfect. Mescal encapsulates the chameleon-like teen trying to fit in — decent but capable of deceit, vulnerable but cheeky, shy but confident.
English actor Daisy Edgar-Jones completely inhabits the role of outsider Marianne, and also deserves plaudits for pulling off one of the more credible Irish accents committed to the screen.
Their exchanges are infused with the intense giddiness of first love, and as they move beyond the awkwardness and giggling of their first kiss, the chemistry at times threatens to burn through the screen.
The supporting cast is strong, particularly Cork’s Sarah Greene as Connell’s mother Lorraine, their ease with each other contrasting with the strained exchanges between Marianne and her tightly-wound mother Denise (Aislín McGuckin).
Abrahamson’s aesthetic is evident in the beautifully framed and lit shots of the first tranche of episodes (Hettie McDonald takes over directing duties for the second six episodes), while the clarity of the storytelling is down to the combined talents of Rooney herself, Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, who make the most of the space that the screen adaptation gives them.
At a time when all the oxygen is absorbed by documentaries about bizarre and exotic characters, or the brazen self-promotion of reality shows, Normal People is powerful in its quietness, giving us time to take a breath, and enjoy the original and best kind of story — about love.