There is a moment a few episodes into Conversations With Friends (BBC Three), the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, when it seems as if the makers are deliberately trolling viewers. One of the characters is an actor and is asked what he’s doing at the moment. He’s starring in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – “It’s a proper play,” he says, “where stuff happens.” Conversations With Friends is almost aggressively the opposite. I like a mood piece as much as the next person, but to stretch one out across a dozen episodes is to test the boundaries of even the most willing soul.
Rooney’s adaptation, with Alice Birch, of her novel Normal People was a lockdown hit in 2020 for its rich, warm and well-observed tale of young love, sensitively directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald. Now Birch, writing alone this time, and Abrahamson (directing seven episodes, and Leanne Welham the other five) have reunited. You can imagine it was intimidating – the epitome of the difficult second album predicament after the raging success of their first collaboration – and it is hard to avoid a creeping sense that they have found themselves paralysed by their own success.
Cool, confident Bobbi (Sasha Lane) and Frances (newcomer Alison Oliver), whose attempts at cynical poses only highlight her naivety, are best friends who dated at school and have just graduated. They’re also duetting performance poets, but they’re young and we all make mistakes. They are taken into the adult world of glamorous writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and thereby introduced to her handsome husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn). Bobbi and Melissa are entranced by each other’s fabulousness, while their more introverted partners inevitably (to anyone over the age of, say, 28?) begin a quiet affair. Non-groundbreaking consequences ensue. Slowly. Very, very slowly.
Normal People kept the unselfconscious hyper-articulacy and self-analysis of the book’s characters, which made them grating at times but also made them real. They were Rooney’s psychological portraits made flesh. Here, the minutely detailed interior and exterior monologues in which she specialises have been jettisoned. Gone is the sense of the shifting sands of personal identity, the passion that can be poured into friendship, the time and energy expended on trivia that powered the book. Instead of a wealth of detail – albeit ironised by characters trying to shield themselves from harm or true feelings as the web of secrets grows – we get lots of meaningful looks, covert glances or charged/pained/strained silences, and very little in between to guide us. When everything is evoked, nothing is.
Such great gaps make a nonsense of the script, even when the lines themselves are good. When Frances balks at Bobbi telling her she has a shiny face, Bobbi hastens to reassure her. “In a good way – it makes you seem less complicated.” This would be the perfect witty encapsulation of a profound friendship if we’d had any evidence beforehand that Frances is more complicated than any other 21-year-old walking through Dublin that day.
There are meatier moments, glimpses of what might have been if the filleting knife had not been wielded so brutally. In episode three, Frances cries after having sex with Nick for the first time. “It’s not real crying, I promise,” she says. “Bobbi says it’s a symptom of my repressed nature. It’s just a physical thing, I feel great. Thank you.” True and not true, honesty and obfuscation, a thousand uncertainties dancing on the head of a pin – it’s the distilled essence of the agony of youth. It makes you want to pay a million pounds to be back there, and at the same time another million to make sure you never have to go anywhere near it again.
The actors all turn in fine performances, making the most of what they have been given. Alwyn does well to handle the double burden of playing a strong, silent type who also turns out to be more decent than we expect. Silent goodness is nice for Nick’s wife and girlfriend, but it’s hard to make register on screen. The debuting Oliver probably won’t be catapulted to fame like Paul Mescal – this series is unlikely to capture the public imagination in the same way – but her ability to make ordinariness interesting and watchfulness intriguing bodes well for her career. Someone cast her in a play where something happens. Or at least where something’s said.