'Conversations with Friends': Sally Rooney on screen, take two
It's tempting to say that if you saw the 2020 Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People, you know a lot about how you'll feel about the 2022 Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends. Even if I didn't tell you that a good chunk of the creative team had returned, you'd realize it on your own. The two shows feel like creative siblings, beyond the fact that they're adapted from the same author's books.
But these are very different stories. Normal People is more conventional, built around a couple, around their drawing together and pulling apart over the years. Conversations with Friends, while it is primarily the story of a shy poet named Frances (Alison Oliver), is built around four people and all the relationships between and among them, over a shorter time but with a complex and multidirectional set of dynamics. Its potential outcomes are multiplied; its narrative paths are more curved, more tangled.
Frances's primary relationship is with the charismatic and outgoing Bobbi (Sasha Lane), who was her high school sweetheart, and who remained her best friend after they broke up. They perform spoken-word poetry together, they spend all their time together, and – critically – they both initially assume that they share everything, that they don't have secrets. At one of their performances, they meet a successful writer named Melissa (Jemima Kirke), and befriending her leads them to her husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), a gorgeous actor to whom Frances is instantly and powerfully attracted.
Eventually, this connection becomes an affair, and while Nick hiding it from his wife might seem like the relationship's biggest secret, it's just as significant to Frances that she's keeping it from Bobbi. Something so big and important, something that affects one of Bobbi's other friends, something that changes Frances' life so much – neither of these women would ever have dreamed it could happen without Bobbi knowing about it, until it did. Is Frances, in her way, also being unfaithful, if we assume she and Bobbi have an understanding she is violating?
While it's an infidelity story, Conversations with Friends doesn't position itself as a cautionary tale about infidelity per se. It resists making Frances and Nick's relationship less real, or less deeply felt, than his marriage. One of the things that connects Conversations with Friends to Normal People is a way of shooting love scenes straightforwardly, so that they feel like extensions of the rest of the story, so that the physical relationship and the emotional one are always closely connected. Frances and Nick's sex scenes are a bit more glamorous, for lack of a better word, than the sex in Normal People, but they still feel more honest than most. The affair between Frances and Nick is built on dishonesty or at least concealment, but the series shoots their scenes together with a sensitivity that makes it clear that while, in some ways, this relationship may be very messy and full of hazards for everyone, it's genuinely happy and fulfilling in others.
One of the challenges of this series is that while Frances is sharply defined, Bobbi is a little less so, and she's just as central to the story as Nick. Because what is troubling Frances, what is making her confused, isn't just that she's having a secret relationship with Nick. It's that she has this relationship with Bobbi that is no longer physical or romantic, but that demands the same intimacy and confidences – and really has the same intensity – that it did when they were a couple. The story takes it as a given that Bobbi is electric, charismatic, someone everyone wants to be around, someone in whose shadow Frances has always felt she was moving. But that doesn't always quite come through in this portrayal, where Bobbi's emotional landscape sometimes seems a bit more blurry than you might wish.
It's admirable that the relationships in this story are so complicated and interconnected. It pushes back against the notion of close relationships displacing each other rather than existing alongside each other, or at least exploring what it would look like to reject that idea. It's hard to make every piece of the contemplative ending feel earned, because it's several endings in one, several conflicts coming to a close together. But as was true with Normal People, the strength of this series is that it is quiet and reflective and pretty.
All four of the main performances are successful; Oliver has some lovely moments in which the normally reserved Frances is suddenly lit from inside by the attention of one of the people she loves. And Kirke has probably the fewest featured scenes, but does a lot of work in them to make Melissa neither an uninterested wife to whom Nick is no longer attached, nor a victim who is sentimental and betrayed. Because we are in Frances's head, we don't spend time alone with Nick and Melissa's marriage, but some of its tricky contours come through anyway.
The series features some fine performances, and it's beautifully directed to find the loneliness of an empty house and the intimacy of sitting close to someone you care about. Still, there's something about Conversations With Friends that's not quite as emotionally vivid as Normal People. The challenge of serving all these relationships is a little too much for the script, and Frances' point of view, as portrayed on screen, isn't quite enough to illuminate all these other characters and make them feel fully realized. It's the less successful of these two related projects, but if you like your dramas understated, you won't be disappointed.
This piece first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations on what's making us happy. Listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.