In this week’s column, Lynden Barber reviews Normal People, the new series based on Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel about an on-off affair, which is attracting plenty of attention. He also reviews Taken Down, a detective series, which begins when a Nigerian girl is found dead at a bus stop outside a centre for asylum seekers; the fifth season of top-shelf British detective series Line of Duty; and the new Australian film Hearts and Bones starring Hugo Weaving and Andrew Luri.
Attempting to persuade my housemate to join me in watching a new series set in Ireland, Normal People, I described it as “a teen romance”. Big mistake. I watched as a face instinctively scrunched up in anticipation of horrors to come. Well, each to their own, but this is not a Hollywood-style teen movie (not that there haven’t been some extremely good ones such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the Jane Austen-derived Clueless).
Adapted from Irish author Sally Rooney’s prize-winning 2018 best-seller of the same name, Normal People is a subtle and quietly compelling series featuring two extraordinarily accomplished young actors.
While it looks and sounds like an Irish series, Normal People is a co-production between the BBC and the US network Hulu, though novelist and co-screenwriter Rooney is Irish, as is Lenny Abrahamson, director of the first six episodes. Sensitivity and intimacy have become Abrahamson trademarks. His most prominent credit is Room, which turned a potentially horrific story of a kidnapped mother and child kept in a basement into a touching exploration of an unusually close mother and son relationship that netted a best actor Academy Award for Brie Larson.
From the first scene, in which a teenage schoolgirl lashes out cockily at her teacher after being admonished for gazing out of the window, I was sucked in. This rebel, we quickly ascertain, is not one of the title’s “normal people”. The girl, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), is routinely belittled by her classmates in provincial Sligo and we quickly realise is friendless. But when she starts slowly getting to know Connell (Paul Mescal), the son of her divorced mother’s housekeeper who attends the same school, we immediately sense there’s more to her. The cynical loner image is just a front for a shy, intelligent and sensitive girl.
Connell meanwhile is a school footie hero, as popular as she is unpopular, but he has another side. Like her, he’s smart yet nonetheless insecure about his place in the world. He’s also apt to get painfully tongue-tied. Of course, they start an affair – and yes, that is the right word, because they keep their relationship hidden at his behest. Though they skirt around discussing this for a while, he’s obviously he’s too embarrassed to admit to his mates that he’s dating the class “freak”. Oops.
The story jumps forward to Trinity College in Dublin, where they are both first year students. Marianne now has friends and seems to have the upper hand in their friendship. The two of them seem forever destined to break up and fall apart. Despite their mutual passion, their romantic relationship never seems entirely solid, while as friends their mutual attraction and history is always in the way.
It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the fresh new faces in the lead roles – both major new talents. The elfin Edgar-Jones has a remarkable presence, half-way between Natalie Wood and a young Anne Hathaway. The camera perpetually seems to be hypnotised by her wine-dark eyes, but Edgar-Jones also knows how to deploy them to create emotion and uncertainty. Mescal is a perfect match, with a champion footballer’s wide-shouldered physique and a sensitivity and confusion about the world and his own lack of strong opinions so raw that it almost hurts to watch.
The love scenes are properly intense, and while her breasts are displayed casually in the preparations (his lower body is not), the camera becomes fixed on the lovers’ shoulders, hair, eyes and lips rather than the rest of their bodies. The scenes, in other words, intensify the emotion of youthful sex without inviting voyeurism.
My only question mark is that after six half-hour episodes, I felt the season was coming to an end before discovering I was only half-way through. Whether the series can continue without becoming overly repetitive remains to be seen.
Trinity College might be only a few kilometres down the road from the settings of seedy Dublin cop tale Taken Down, but it might as well be on another planet. The series’ female-centric point of view (the three lead roles are two women detectives and an African refugee and mother) and its scenario about African refugees and a seedy illegal brothel has enough to mark it as a little different, but not quite enough to make it mandatory viewing.
Hats off to the location scouts: the dockside refugee accommodation, a forbidding kind of open jail perpetually glowered at by the almost Gothic abandoned factory next door, is haunting.
But the casual nature of Taken Down’s plot mechanics look especially flawed up against a top-shelf British detective series like Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty, whose fifth season, and all earlier episodes, are up at Stan. (Relative newcomer Acorn TV also has seasons one to four but not the fifth).
For those yet to see it, Line of Duty is about a unit of detectives investigating corruption in police ranks. This time the narrative revolves around an undercover cop who appears to have gone rogue. I’ll say no more about the plot other than as usual it’s highly complex, yet with close attention, perfectly followable. Executive producer and chief writer Mercurio again proves a master of plot and narrative tension, each episode invariably ending by building up the tension until a genuinely surprising revelation. Some might call this a formula but it’s better recognised as a well-tuned sense of dramatic structure and dynamics.
A final observation: Adrian Dunbar, who plays the unit’s senior officer, Superintendent Ted Hastings, is one of the finest living male Irish actors, up there with Gabriel Byrne and Brendan Gleeson. There isn’t a scene in which he appears that is even mildly flat.
The week’s round-up ends with Hearts and Bones (iTunes; Google Play), a thoughtful Australian drama originally planned for cinema release but due to the coronavirus crisis being released straight to digital streaming. The story focuses on the relationship between a war photographer (Hugo Weaving) and a taxi driver (Andrew Luri), a refugee from South Sudan. Tensions arise between the two men over a planned photo exhibition of a war crime in South Sudan. The film, directed by Ben Lawrence (son of Lantana filmmaker, Ray Lawrence), takes a little too much time laying down its narrative breadcrumbs but when they finally all come together the result is an unexpectedly powerful climax.