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In a house with slate grey walls, splashy art and artisanal chopping boards, two 21-year old women are cos-playing in an adult world, listening to people in their — gasp — 30s talk about wedding days and squandered dreams. Bobbi (Sasha Lane) draws a crowd by playing impish iconoclast, laughing at the married, conventional people, and kissing the (married) hostess Melissa (Jemima Kirke). Meanwhile, Bobbi’s ex-girlfriend and best friend Frances (Alison Oliver) drifts around the house like a maudlin ghost.
Upstairs, she looks for the only other person under this roof as determined as her not to have any fun: Melissa’s husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn), who has got high to deal with the existential anguish of being a good looking, well-off and reasonably successful actor. Inevitably, an affair commences.
Miserable intellectuals; soft-focus shagging; a damning disquisition on monogamy — yes, this is the Sally Rooney-verse: the much-hyped, 12-episode BBC3 x Hulu adaptation of her first, best novel Conversations With Friends. As you probably heard, Normal People, the hormonal adaptation of her second book, was the smash hit of lockdown 2020, making stratospheric stars of its unknown leads Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal, streamed over 62 million times that year.
As a novel, Conversations With Friends is extraordinary: intense; cerebral; political; exhilarating; a quiet tour-de-force that coined a genre of acerbic copycats. It experiments with form and text; its characters experiment with unconventional relationships. This adaptation is a watered down version of it.
Plot-wise, it is faithful to the original. Frances and Bobbi meet Melissa, an author, and Nick, an actor, at a slam poetry event where the pair are performing Frances’s poetry (“I’m her muse,” Bobbi drawls cutely. “We dropped the f***ing but kept the poetry”). Soon the pair are attending dinner and birthday parties at Nick and Melissa’s; Frances and Nick commence the affair.
There are tense texts and conversations in which no one says very much at all; there is a holiday to Croatia where Bobbi catches Nick and Frances at it. Frances obsesses, frets, agonises, watches... Eventually, Nick tells Melissa and they try to all be very adult about it, while all playing games and secretly hating each other. The affair is the spine of the show, although Frances is also dealing with an alcoholic father and endometriosis; Bobbi with her warring parents; and the pair of them with the ongoing psychodrama of their relationship.
As in the book, the Bobbi-Frances relationship is the molten core of the series, and Lane and Oliver have real chemistry. Bobbi is in charge, either telling Frances, “OK, now you’re being annoying”, or delivering charged compliments (“Does my face look shiny?” asks Frances. “A bit,” Bobbi reponds. “In a good way though. It makes you seem complicated”). Lane is a revelation, an angsty bundle of contradictions, playing Bobbi as vulnerable and defiant, wide-eyed and mischievous and contemptuous. She is hungry for life and experience; she is very 21. Oliver, one of Rooney’s archetypal gawky, permanently perturbed female leads who constantly apologise for merely existing, comes alive when Lane is on-screen.
Unfortunately, this pairing outshines the affair, which gets a lot of screentime. By comparison to Bobbi and Frances’s patter, Nick and Frances’s relationship can feel rather like ambient noise: plodding, ponderous; frustrating; stilted. The casting elevated Normal People from adolescent melodrama to devastating modern love story; it has the opposite effect here.
Alwyn and Oliver’s chemistry is simply too awkward to believe they’re actually into each other; if this is the point, then I admit I missed it. Theirs is a cool flame without that molten core, and without the urgency, you do find yourself wondering what the point of it all is. Their foreplay is a lot of staring at each other and him asking what means of transport she arrived by. The relationship causes problems for Bobbi and Frances, which is interesting, but does emphasise that Nick is often surplus to the requirements of the drama.
Indeed, in this four-hander, Alwyn’s Nick is the weak link: he feels just a little too blank, a strong and silent type who doesn’t quite convince. The mismatch in their ages is crucial to the imbalance of their power dynamic — this is also Frances’s first relationship with a man — but it is played curiously here: he seems more of a father figure rather than as an older man with all the power. He is always correcting Frances, telling her how to behave, explaining adult behaviour to her. His Irish accent is not very good.
The other crucial issue is, of course, that the most interesting people are often off screen. Lane’s Bobbi is magnetic, charismatic and Kirke’s Melissa is perfect: spiky, acidic, superior, a blonde ice queen who is enjoying her devastating effect on these young women. She has had affairs herself; the scene in which Melissa summons Frances to her house to discuss the affair is a quiet masterclass in using power to unsettle.
But Frances is a passive, malleable drip of a girl — also very 21 in her own, different way, and played very well by Oliver, but at times so passive, such a spectator, she almost disappears off the screen — and Nick is a charisma vacuum. In the book, this is the point: fiction’s best characters are the introspective introverts, the watchful observers who dissect reality for us. But on screen, it means Frances and Nick are constantly outshone, upstaged — to the extent that scenes with just the pair of them can drag. Frances’s best episodes are the ones without the affair: her guilty relationship with her struggling father, the agony of her own health issues.
The dialogue is sharp and the universe beautiful, and the whole show is in moments exhilarating, although often a little too pared back. At 12 episodes it is also long and can feel rather baggy. Lenny Abrahamson, who directed Normal People, returns, and tonally and aesthetically, the two shows feel very similar. It is both unfair and inevitable to compare the two, but you miss that bright, beautiful, frustrating love story, and the thrilling complexity of the book. “Lately, I feel like I’m watching you disappear,” Bobbi tells Frances; occasionally, it feels like the whole thing does.
Conversations With Friends is on BBC iPlayer from May 15