The first time we see Marianne Sheridan smile, she is caught as unawares as us. The aloof, straight-A student sits in the stands of a game, watching classmate Connell Waldron play Gaelic football, and we can see the interest grow in her eyes as she feels invested in his kicks and his diving blocks. This boy in the number 10 shirt sweats and runs and scores a winning goal, causing Marianne to forget her reserved self and rise to her feet in thrilled applause. She has to cheer for him. The smile is out before the quiet girl can think of reining it in.
The highly acclaimed BBC/Hulu series Normal People — based on Sally Rooney’s bestseller of the same name and adapted by the author — finally comes to Indian screens on January 8, streaming on Lionsgate Play. The 12-episode series tells a tender, devastating story of young love, of its highs and its pitfalls, and the way it feels like the only thing in the world that is worth a damn. This show is about two tentative youngsters figuring out their way in the world and, as tentatively, reaching out for one another.
The first time they flirt, they brag — about each other. Marianne, the reserved wealthy girl, and Connell, the popular footballer, each talk about the other’s grades. He calls her “smarter than everyone” (something she says of him, much later in life) while she reminds him that he (an author’s idea of a hero) is “top of the class in English.” They circle one another modestly, inexpertly, baby sharks feeling their way in dark waters. It is a thing of beauty.
Normal People is gorgeous. Set in Ireland and directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, the show has a vibe that is both cinematic and intimate. The two actors — Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell — are exquisitely cast, and the show sobs and sighs in unison with them. Normal People lives in the furtiveness of Marianne’s glance and the relentless blush on Connell’s cheeks. Phones buzz and eyes react to texts, but words sent remain private. This is a show that aches.
“I was watching you play,” says Marianne while in bed with Connell, about that first time we saw her face light up, “and honestly you looked so beautiful. Just kept thinking how much I wanted to watch you have sex.” Connell, a writer who frequently keeps his words to himself — even from himself — is silent as she goes on about the way he made her feel. “I mean, not even with me. With anybody.”
Edgar-Jones is a wonder. Brilliant and brittle, haughty and hesitant, it isn’t hard to accept her as a classically striking young woman who genuinely believes she isn’t beautiful. As the series winds on, the tables are turned — Marianne is popular among the college crowd while Connell ducks out of campus parties to read in his room — yet even when Marianne is effortlessly dazzling those around her, there is always a sense she’d rather be by herself. Or by Connell.
Connell is a slipperier, more complicated part. He relies on Marianne to tell him what to study and his mother to tell him how he messed up as a person, and Mescal makes sure this boy with “a nice face” feels dramatically rough around the edges. We can sense how parched he must be, drinking in the life around him with the wordless disbelief of a writer. When he excels in college, he blames it on other people not reading enough. The title comes from neither of them wanting to be considered extraordinary.
Normal People gives us these two lovers coming together and falling apart, and coming together and falling apart. It’s about how much love relies on the timing. “It isn’t like this with other people,” Marianne breathlessly tells Connell after one of their lyrical, superbly shot lovemaking sessions, sessions that feature a wordless give and take that feels nearly like dialogue. “I know,” he agrees, immediately and inevitably breaking his heart and hers and ours.
Young love carries on. The settings and characters change, but the circling remains as inept. In his marvellous song So long, Marianne, the bard Leonard Cohen wrote, “It’s time that we began to laugh, and cry, and cry, and laugh about it all, again.”
In an early scene, Connell, waiting around Marianne’s tall bookshelves, reaches out for a Doris Lessing novel, later admitting to her it is one he’s already read (and liked), and so he isn’t sure why he picked up that book — but we know. He’s out of his depth and reaching out for the life-preserver of familiarity. Like many things these young romantics consider deeply unique to their own conflicted personalities, this is something we’ve all done. We may know better than the lovely leads of this series, even if we sometimes wish we didn’t. Youth only seems normal to the young.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.