In April 2020, when we were first introduced to a new way of living, Hulu and the BBC Normal people was the emotional rollercoaster that brought everyone together to stop crying about the pandemic and cry over two horny Irish teenagers instead. The television phenomenon doubtless deserved all the praise it received, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of its successor, Conversations with friends†
The show is based again on a novel by Sally Rooneywho is considered the voice of a generation, painting poignant stories about sexuality, mental health, intimacy and relationships in a nuanced and primary way. Conversations follows Frances (Alison Oliver), a shy, timid and intellectual literature student, and her best friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane) in present-day Dublin. The pair is chalk and cheese: Bobbi is confident, irreverent and confrontational, while Frances hides on the sidelines as much as possible, yet notices everything. Frances and Bobbi dated at school, but are now just friends, albeit in a highly interdependent and intensely platonic relationship.
We meet the couple just at the beginning of summer before their senior year at Trinity College Dublin. They perform spoken word poetry (only Frances writes it) and at a performance they meet Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a famous and respected English writer. Bobbi immediately falls in love with Melissa, who invites them over to her house for dinner where she meets Nick (Joe Alwyn), Melissa’s demure Irish actor husband. The married couple are equally beautiful when separated, but Frances and Nick seem to bond based on their position as the quieter in their respective dynamics and so, in classic Rooney fashion, they embark on an affair of intense sex, extreme stares across rooms, and the assurance that no one will be happy. With Bobbi’s crush on Melissa added, it expands the classic love triangle into a love square – and plot wise, it is.
To see what went wrong, it must be said that Conversations with friends was never a book ripe for the TV treatment. Anyone who has read both books can see that the characters, dialogue, and storylines of Normal people are much more tangible and ready for adjustment. In ConversationsRooney leaves many things unsaid on the page that cannot be picked up by a screenwriter. What we get as a result is a stale, uninspired and chilly series, without any of the charm or soul of Normal people† The book is looted for material to work with. It probably could have made for a decent 90-minute movie, but a 12-episode run goes way beyond what the source material could provide.
It’s easy for a show that relies heavily on characters who essentially do nothing but exist to lose themselves in banality. But when done right, the story can resonate with a wider audience and bring out the more universal truths of what it’s like to be human. Conversations lacks such a connection with the public. The characters are supposed to feel isolated from each other, but they should never feel isolated from the audience. They are kept at a distance, which prevents any real immersion in the story, making it difficult to worry about what happens to them. Conventionality, when used properly, can be more poignant than a show that is a grand spectacle, but it can easily get lost and not evoke real emotional commitment, and this is exactly the case with Conversations with friends† It feels like at the end of the show we tried to invest ourselves in this world but with nothing to show for it.
For a story that puts so much emphasis on the characters, the casting always had to be flawless. Roadway as Bobbi seemed like the perfect choice as she has played lost souls and party animals with great success, especially in Andrea Arnold‘s American honey† Lane plays the young experience with all fleeting emotion, yet, a grounded substance, begging you to take her more seriously. She uses this in Bobbi and always reminds Frances (and us) that we don’t really know her because we think we’re on to her. Lane is noticeably stiff and over-acting in the first few episodes, but by the end she seems more comfortable in the role and is one of the better performances on the show. Overall, it’s a decent effort, but with Lane’s previous acting experience, more was expected.
Alwyn, everyone’s favorite boyfriend, is one of those actors you might not notice right away, but who’s definitely seen at least a couple of his movies (The favorite boy erased† He never demands your attention, but always offers a sensitivity, even when playing horrific characters. His performance as Nick is informed, emotional without being overly expressive – which is another way to sum up Rooney’s writing. The scene where he visits Frances while she is sick is a standout, portraying shock, heartbreak, guilt and sympathy in one look. Alwyn excels at being the listener, being able to remain silent without much dialogue yet exude presence much like his small but memorable role in The Souvenir Part II† If it wasn’t all accompanied by a South Dublin accent that sounds like it came from Buckingham Palace, it would be almost perfect. Fellow Irish viewers: prepare your ears.
Frances is a difficult character to decipher or empathize with, so becoming her was by no means an easy task, and newcomer Oliver had a lot of work to do. It pains me to criticize up-and-coming Irish stars, but it must be said that Oliver’s performance is plagued by a lack of understanding of the character. She is numb at times when Frances should melt her looks away. When Frances has to be nervous or dizzy, she’s more like Mr. Then bean on someone who falls in love. It’s a shame, since Frances is the main carrier of the story, and if Oliver could have found her foundation in the character, the show might have been given a little more structure. Oliver will certainly have more opportunities in the future to showcase her acting skills, but Rooney’s characters have to be inhibited rather than acted out because they are so inconspicuous, making them easy to disappear – and sadly Oliver lets Frances slip away from her. There are so many layers in Frances; that’s the whole point of her character. She only shows selected people her core, but the Frances we get in the series is ultimately one-dimensional, and as a result, we lose all sight of the character she’s supposed to be.
The strongest performance comes in the form of Kirke. Among a sea of brooding, wallowing poets, Kirke’s Melissa is the dose of reality the show so desperately needs. It is unexpected, as we all know Kirke best for playing the funny and laconic Jessa in girls† But alongside the gloomy Nick and awkward Frances, Melissa is the character we most empathize with, and that’s because of Kirke’s lively presence. She cuts through the uneasy gray matter to give us moments of anger, joy, generosity and fallibility, giving the show a little bit of a human touch. Her penetrating and intuitive performance lifts the show off the ground and brings her fellow characters to the ground.
Conversations with friends is ultimately a show that puts style over substance. Director Lenny Abrahamson‘s direction is not surprisingly sensitive; doing its best to bring the mediocre dialogue to a certain level of poignancy. It seems somewhat reductive and cliché to refer to these stories as “pretentious” because that’s the whole point, but there’s no irony in these characters or their motivations that makes them completely empathetic. They are ultimately alien to us, and this results in a story without any real heart or soul. I’d say it’s disappointing, but there never seemed to be any potential for a book so empty of a real story to spawn a 12-episode run. With a directionless script, uninspired central execution and frustrating pace, Conversations with friends fails to take the Sally Rooney verse one more win.
Conversations with friends will premiere all 12 episodes on May 15, exclusively on Hulu.
‘The Ipcress File’: Release Date, Cast, Movie Details & Everything We Know So Far
About the author