Author Sally Rooney took the literary world by storm upon the release of her 2017 novel, Conversations with Friends, which was praised and acclaimed by both critics, award bodies and avid readers all over the world. However, it was in 2020, amidst the early months of the pandemic, when television audiences were introduced to her work through the adaptation of her second novel, Normal People. The dysfunctional romance between Connell and Marianne not only jump started the careers of Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, but it also became a global streaming phenomenon with it’s incredibly intimate and sexually charged look at the ups-and-downs of a modern, young adult romance. Following Normal People’s incredible success, a mini-series adaptation of Rooney’s freshman effort, Conversations with Friends is due to premiere on Prime Video on May 16.
In Dublin, Frances (Alison Oliver in her debut performance) is an observant and sharp 21-year-old, who is spending her college years performing spoken-word poetry with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend), Bobbi (Sasha Lane, Loki, American Honey). Although the two are ex-partners, they are virtually inseparable with an unbreakable bond between them. Following on of their live performances, they meet Melissa (Jemima Kike, Sex Education), an outgoing profile writer who is interested in talking to Frances and Bobbi for a magazine article. Melissa invites the two poets over to her house for dinner, leading to their introduction to Melissa’s husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). Nick’s timid and quietly spoken demeanour both surprises and intrigues Frances, so much so that it leads to a romantic affair between them both. Conflicted between the feeling of guilt for being interested in Nick and the intense connection they share; Melissa begins to show a keen professional and personal interest in Bobbi. However, neither Frances, nor Bobbi, share these relationships with one another.
Rooney’s story, adapted for the small screen by Normal People telewriter Alice Birch, is a fascinating and grounded dissection of themes such as monogamy, sexuality, and relationship dynamics. The story-telling method of having extended conversations that intimately give insight into a characters thoughts, whether they be in person or digitally, allows an incredible depth within each unique character, their values and their reactions. It’s also quite amazing how much can be revealed during the shows silent moments too, a look between characters or a slight facial movement is complimenting of the performances, but even more so shows how well fleshed out Rooney’s story is that it is so easily portrayed by the actors, and then subsequently understood by the audience. Birch and the writing team’s episodic structure creates a bingeable urge within each episode. Each of the five (of twelve in total) 30-minute episodes I viewed felt like a contained story with great character progression, but in the dying moments, builds enough tension or intrigue that clicking through to the next episode felt far too easy, but the show earns that compliment through its intelligent and captivating writing. Conversations with Friends may not be as sexually driven and exciting as Normal People’s romance, it is undoubtedly a stronger narrative piece overall.
Also returning to Conversations with Friends is director Lenny Abrahamson (Room), who directs the first 5 episodes, similar to his work on Normal People. His sharp aesthetic once again captures the ever-glowing Irish landscapes, while his intimate direction adds a sense of voyeurism of equal parts in the emotional back-and-forth’s and in the shows more adult moments. Abrahamson’s directorial strength is allowing a scene to play out in a patient fashion. Never resorting to quick cuts or shot changes to keep a moment engaging, his understanding that Rooney and Birch’s writing coming through the passionate performances is what will drive the narrative only compliments his visual style and editing choices throughout.
In her debut lead role, Alison Oliver embodies the personality and physicality of Frances with ease, making her a great character for the audience to follow during the series. The balance of a timid-nature with the sharp, confident intelligence that she possess isn’t an easy thing to pull off, but Oliver makes an outstanding debut performance doing such. Sasha Lane is just as engaging as Bobbi, which in any other show, played by any other actor could easily be passed off as ‘the stereotypical American’, but Lane allows a level of empathy for her character that makes Bobbie equally charming and likeable, even when the foundations of her relationship with Frances are tested. Joe Alwyn continues to shine as he takes solid role after role, with his performance as Nick allowing him to show off the most three-dimensional version of his acting we’ve seen so far. And Jemima Kirke nails every moment as Melissa, with a strong confidence that is never undermined by her vulnerabilities.
While it’s hard to not compare this story with Normal People, what Conversations with Friends lacks in a fiery sexuality and lustful romance, it makes up for in a truly well-navigated story with incredibly fleshed out characters.
Conversations with Friends will be available to stream on Prime Video May 16.
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