Normal People is an achingly truthful and absorbingly intimate millennial love story for the ages

Based on Sally Rooney’s acclaimed 2018 novel, Normal People is a breathtaking adaptation of a transcendent Irish love story. Uncannily smart, emotionally sophisticated and seductively melancholy – this immaculate series presents a grand romance that is as immersive and intimate as the beloved book that inspired it. Spanning from secondary school in the small town of Sligo, to their young adult lives at Trinity College in Dublin, Normal People steeps us into the heads of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), two lovers who try, and fail, and try, and fail, to resist the magnetic pull between them.

When we first meet them as teenagers, Marianne is a sharp-witted, prickly tongued social outcast, mocked for her intelligence and wealthy upbringing. Connell is just as smart and studious as she is, but is popular due to his working class roots, and his status as handsome and outgoing jock. Although unlikely to interact in school, Connell’s mother, Lorraine (Sarah Greene), works as a housekeeper at Marianne’s palatial family home, which gives them a chance to develop a genuine connection… until social pressures crush their blossoming romance in the most hurtful way possible.

Years later, when they both wind up in the same college in the big city, beyond the familial and small-minded constraints of their home community – the roles have reversed, with her the bright and effervescent social butterfly in a crowd of intellectuals, and him the brilliant yet introspective loner incapable of making friends. They drift in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes as lovers, and sometimes as friends – sometimes in big and dramatic ways, and sometimes with small but no less impactful gestures through Skype or email. He is periodically awful to her without meaning to be, while she has a tendency to pull away for reasons beyond her control. Yet they share not only an intense sexual chemistry, but also a weakness for living too much inside their own heads.

Much of what Normal People presents is delicate, extremely interior material – at times told in leisurely sequences where we simply watch one or both of them lost in thought, at others in quick, impressionistic bursts conveying the rush of feeling brought on by the latest complication between them. Showrunner Alice Birch, alongside directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Howards End) find wonderful visual and tonal ways to illustrate the internal and external divisions (both perceived and felt) of these characters without the aid of Rooney’s gorgeously written inner monologues. So much is visceral and implied, and it all hinges upon a pair of magnificent performances.

Edgar-Jones and Mescal quickly click into Marianne and Connell’s unspoken bond of shared disquiet and palpable passion. Neither of them are particularly verbose, but their shorthand with each other becomes a language all its own. With every episode, you learn to read their moods and micro-expressions. They are spectacular at conveying the vulnerability and longing essential to making a love story like this work. As the series progresses, and more serious psychological issues (beyond their turbulent romance) come to light, Edgar-Jones and Mescal deliver beautifully nuanced acting by delving deep into wellsprings of trauma, without succumbing to the temptation to oversell the drama.

While most movies and TV shows typically use intercourse as cheap titillation – the myriad of sex scenes in Normal People (truthfully, almost half the show is spent in bed) are absolutely crucial to the characters understanding themselves and each other, and to the audience’s understanding of their development as people and as a couple. Though the series leaves pretty much no body part unexposed, the sex never seems gratuitous. In fact, these scenes are vital because they demonstrate the instinct that Marianne and Connell have to love and honor each other, even though other aspects of their lives often make it difficult to demonstrate those same feelings publicly and consistently.

Edgar-Jones conveys exhaustion and exhilaration with little more than a look or a slight inflection, while Mescal’s taciturn character holds back so much from the outside world that his raw emotion during sex offers the most revealing insights. Together, the young talents are never more expressive than when Connell and Marianne are alone and entwined. Their first time together sees nerves slowly give way to desire, and each subsequent reconnection offers a glimpse into what’s going on inside each reserved individual’s head, and what’s going on between them at that specific stage in their relationship. They fit together beautifully in many ways – at least, when their respective demons aren’t keeping them at odds – but it’s when they’re in bed together, and truly naked (literally and emotionally), that the match is most compelling.

But despite the intoxication we feel when they’re together, Edgar-Jones and Mescal are actually at their best when Marianne and Connell are separated. Pages of prose could be revealed with a single sideways glance from Edgar-Jones – a skill that comes in handy, given how Marianne tends to disappear into herself when she’s with another man. Mescal, given his quiet character, is astonishingly good at making clear exactly what he’s thinking, even if Connell himself doesn’t realize what he’s telegraphing. And when Connell cracks, watching Mescal lean in to the character’s reluctant feelings is breathtaking. 

In addition to crafting a love story that’s easy to get swept up in, Normal People also explores class and privilege, the insidious impact of abuse, and how what seem like silly teenage interactions can shape one’s sense of identity well into adulthood. While Rooney’s book and series carefully explores how individuals evolve as they grow older, it also does something that only the best coming-of-age stories do – it treats young adults with respect and takes their relationships, especially first loves, seriously. It is well aware that those relationships leave permanent, formative marks.

From its bucolic Irish setting, to the terrific songs featured on its soundtrack, to the magic conjured by a trifecta of elegant writing, acting and direction – you will be thoroughly embedded into Marianne and Connell’s headspace for the duration of these 12 half-hour episodes. Normal People is extraordinarily moving, utterly convincing and entirely absorbing – so much so that you will have trouble letting go once it’s all over. Like many great love stories, this series is too clever to explicitly make it clear whether Marianne and Connell truly belong together, and it wisely leaves its climax open-ended. Whether they get a “happily ever after” is up to your imagination – but what isn’t up for interpretation is that for all the joy and passion and pain and mess – a love this undeniable and intimate has ultimately enriched them forever.

Rating: 8.5/10