Conversations with Friends: ‘There’s a lot of bad behaviour which the audience might find unforgivable’
Under a covered terrace in the heat-blasted garden of a seaside Croatian villa, a tense conversation is taking place between a husband and a wife over a lemon the husband forgot to buy at a shop. “Sorry for being a b—h,” says Melissa, and Nick smiles at her, briefly. The conversation is played again, this time with Nick holding her gaze more intently. And again, now with Nick glancing briefly at Frances, his 21-year-old lover, who is hovering behind a sun lounger. And again, with another barely perceptible tweak in emphasis, a hand now lingering a millisecond longer than before.
ally Rooney fans will already know these characters and almost certainly the scene, which occurs halfway through her debut novel Conversations with Friends, albeit in France rather than Croatia.
“Rooney’s novels are about the spaces between people,” says Lenny Abrahamson, who directed six of the 12 episodes of Rooney’s second novel Normal People, which garnered a staggering 62 million streams on iPlayer in 2020 during lockdown, and is back in the chair for seven of the 12 episodes that will make up Conversations with Friends, which tracks the messy emotional and sexual transgressions between two couples. The shoot is six months long, with each discrete moment demanding multiple takes. “It’s about finding the nuance in ways that feel very real.”
So seismic was the impact of Normal People, a sexually explicit, yearningly poetic 12-parter about the relationship between high-school lovers Connell and Marianne across several years, that Conversations with Friends is perhaps the most eagerly awaited TV show of the year. For those who haven’t read the novel, it parses the same emotional territory — the microscopic shifts in atmosphere between two people, the needling torments of anxiety and self-doubt, the endless debates by bookish 20-somethings over how to live and who to be — yet although Rooney wrote it before Normal People, when she was just 24, it’s a more complex and sophisticated book.
It’s told from the point of view of Frances, an intellectually uncompromising literature student at Trinity College Dublin, still umbilically close to her more candid, uninhibited ex-girlfriend Bobbi.
Their performance poetry together attracts the attention, then friendship, of Melissa, a wealthy and established writer, who likes to throw fabulous parties in her gorgeous Dublin marital home. Frances (played by Irish newcomer Alison Oliver) strikes up a relationship with Melissa’s actor husband Nick (The Favourite’s Joe Alwyn, known outside cinephile circles for being Taylor Swift’s boyfriend), while Bobbi (American Honey’s Sasha Lane) develops a partially reciprocated crush on Melissa (Jemima Kirke, star of Girls).
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Although the series can’t portray events exclusively through Frances’s perspective the way the novel does, she nonetheless dominates — an emotionally hard to reach “brain in a jar” who, in her sometimes lofty resistance to fixed ideas about identity and behaviour, is occasionally monstrous towards those she loves.
“Normal People was intensely romantic. The audience really rooted for that couple,” says Kirke. “That’s not so possible in Conversations. There is a lot of bad behaviour, which the audience, in some ways, might find unforgivable.”
There’s no question Normal People is a tough act to follow. Adapted partly by Rooney herself, it reverberated so strongly with its audience, partly because of the killer chemistry between its two leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, and partly because it landed at a point at which lockdown had made us particularly receptive to stories about connection and intimacy, especially ones that tapped into a heightened state of adolescent self-discovery that nearly everyone could relate to (parents found themselves loving it as much as their children).
With its lush, melancholic stillness and emphasis on what was not being said just as much as what was, it felt like nothing else that had been on TV before, its airy, suggestive silences forcing its audience to lean in — what Abrahamson calls “active watching, which is quite rare in a world in which so much TV encourages you to sit back and let it wash all over you”.
Then there was the sex. Connell fumbling with a condom. Marianne flushed with excitement and nerves. The unvarnished, clumsy, awkward exhilaration of it all, the stuff TV usually leaves on the cutting-room floor. “TV is definitely guilty of depicting nudity Game of Thrones-style, as something racy or titillating,” says Abrahamson, whose feature- length credits include 2015’s Room, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. “We knew people would be shocked by Normal People because even though it wasn’t more explicit than a lot of TV shows, it felt as though it was because the sex was so raw.”
He’s fully aware of the potential issues surrounding an older man directing a close-up sex scene featuring much younger actors (and in the case of Normal People, characters sometimes in their school uniform). “I felt pretty solid in my position, to be honest; if I had felt uncomfortable I think I couldn’t have done it. The worry I had was more the actor-director dynamic: me as an older established director and the actors being younger and early in their careers. One big reason for having Ita [O’Brien, the shows’ intimacy coordinator] is that, should the actors have a problem with anything, they don’t need to be directly accountable to myself and Leanne [Welham, the show’s other director].”
He’s been similarly careful to ensure the scenes in Conversations between Frances and Nick, who is 32, don’t feel exploitative, even though it’s often Frances who initiates them. “Because Nick is an older character, we wanted to work against the default assumption that would make you feel like he had all the power,” he says. “Instead the ambiguity between them in that context is really interesting. Ambiguity can be a very truthful thing.”
Normal People sparked some titters of disapproval — what Abrahamson, born in Dublin in 1966, describes as “the last echo of Ireland from 30 years ago” — while one British tabloid pantingly reported that the 12 episodes featured “41 minutes and 15 sections of bedroom action including full-frontal romps”. Yet amid the noisily sexual swagger of TV shows such as Sex Education and Euphoria, the show’s unsensational, truthful naturalism was embraced, in Ireland in particular, with an almost audible sigh of relief.
“I remember my parents being so thrilled by Normal People,” says Oliver (24), who grew up in Cork and admits to thinking, ‘Oh God…’ at the prospect of doing sex scenes herself, although she is quick to reassure me she never once felt uncomfortable. “My mum thought it was great that we are seeing sex between young people on TV. I’ve even heard they have started to show these scenes in schools to teach young people about consent, and what is normal to happen between two people. For Ireland it’s been a revelation.”
Conversations follows the same 25-minute episode format as Normal People, the same long, colour-saturated shots, the same moody use of silence and pop music. (This time round, Rooney didn’t adapt since she was busy writing her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, and entrusted the process to Abrahamson and his co-writers; fortunately she liked the results, says Abrahamson, “otherwise it would have been awful”.)
Yet while there is also plenty of sex, between Frances and Nick, and Frances and Bobbi, it feels both less straightforward and oddly less integral to the narrative’s emotional dynamics. Partly because a fair deal of the novel concerns the bedrock relationship between Bobbi and Frances which, as Lane points out, is harder to pin down, mainly because Frances and Bobbi rarely feel the need to.
There are lovely, easy scenes of the two women wordlessly eating dinner in front of the TV, of Bobbi handing Frances painkillers when she is curled up with period pains on the bathroom floor, of them exchanging a look full of understanding in a noisy, crowded bar.
“Women are naturally intimate with each other in ways that don’t necessarily need to be sexual,” says Lane, who is bisexual. “I’ve had friends with whom I could go to that place, but it’s not always necessary; whatever sexual desire you have, it’s not why you love that person. You just want to be around them. And if we did cross that line, we would wake up the next morning and it wouldn’t even be something that needs to be said. Rooney understands that instinctive feminine intimacy very well.”
Rooney’s three novels have certainly proven a lightning rod for a generation who see, in her unashamedly intellectual, self-agonisingly anxious characters, people who speak and have sex and drink and think just like they do. “I wished I had read Conversations with Friends when I was 18, 19, with a character like Frances who was experiencing so many things that I recognised, who was confused and didn’t know what she was doing,” says Welham, who directed five episodes of Conversations with Friends. “Frances is bisexual but that doesn’t define her as a character, which would have been very helpful to read at that age. I don’t want to get into the ‘someone will watch the show and it will really help them’; it’s not about that, but at the same time hopefully some people will get more out of it than merely really enjoying it.”
“Before Rooney published her novels, I would watch films and read books that were set in American high-schools and while I could relate to them, I was always aware that my friends and I conversed in different ways,” says Oliver. “When I read her two books, before they were made into films, I had this feeling of ‘I feel so seen’ by this. It was the first time I had read something and thought ‘I understand this world. I understand who this person is’.”
There’s no doubt Oliver’s performance — her first screen role — is the beating heart of Conversations with Friends. Even when she is staring out of a rain-streaked bus window, you can’t stop looking at her. For all Frances’s millennial love for irony and cool air of self-control, Oliver is unafraid to show her being often uneasy in her own body, her face sometimes blotchy and stupid with embarrassment, or hot and ruffled in the immediate aftermath of sex. Her screen allure is not in doubt, but it’s more earthy and authentic than Edgar-Jones’s Bambi-eyed beauty.
“It will be very refreshing for women to see a woman like Frances on screen,” says Emma Norton, producer of both shows. “Alison’s a very beautiful woman, but Frances is a very physical person in a body she can’t always control. We saw some really big names for Frances, but Alison had this extraordinary lack of self-consciousness. An actress has to really disappear into that role. It would be hard to have someone well-known sink into it in that way.”
For, beyond the headline-grabbing sex, both Norton and Abrahamson believe that what makes these TV adaptations truly radical is their unflashy quietness. “Normal People was a really interesting intersection between a mass audience and quite subtle material,” says Abrahamson. “As a filmmaker you are constantly trying to make work that connects with people inside an industry that has strong commercial imperatives and trades on all the usual relationships of distraction and binge-watching. But we are telling stories in ways that are more suited to arthouse cinema than to the mainstream, and that Normal People has been watched by people who might not ordinarily be drawn to such unsugary filmmaking feels to me a really worthwhile thing.”
“There are lots of good shows out there that explore some sort of youth culture and sex and sexuality,” says Norton. “But our shows sometimes don’t even feel like TV at all. Some viewers will watch for the energy and excitement and nihilism of Euphoria, but others will come to Conversations with Friends and go, ‘That’s me and my friends waiting for a takeaway.’ There’s something about that low-key aesthetic that feels uniquely disarming.”
Conversations with Friends starts on BBC Three on May 15
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/conversations-with-friends-theres-a-lot-of-bad-behaviour-which-the-audience-might-find-unforgivable-41571612.html Conversations with Friends: ‘There’s a lot of bad behaviour which the audience might find unforgivable’