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‘Normal People’ Review: An Epic Romance Told with Breathtaking Intimacy

Sally Rooney's novel on the societal and psychological impediments to true love springs to life in Hulu's profound 12-part adaptation.

NORMAL PEOPLE

“Normal People”

BBC Three/Hulu

IWCriticsPick

All seminal love stories have to recognize the seminal love stories that preceded them. Whether it’s the forbidden desire driving “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Great Gatsby,” or the chaotic passion fueling “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Natural Born Killers,” great romances of all sorts are born from the same universal emotion that spurs formative dalliances and lifelong relationships. Love finds many forms, but it remains at the core of all love stories. To rekindle the flame, each new entry just has to recognize it’s been told before, and then find compelling reasons to tell it again now.

So imagine my delight when less than an hour into “Normal People,” Hulu’s immaculate adaptation of a novel already hailed as a modern classic, I hear Imogen Heap’s millennial dirge “Hide and Seek” play over a swooning montage of young love. As the well-off outcast Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and working-class man-of-the-people Connell (newcomer Paul Mescal) first discover their intense feelings for one another, the song immediately and unmistakably tied to Josh Schwartz’s own modern classic, “The O.C.,” begins to take on a different meaning; it’s not framing a funeral or a homicide, but instead filling a blossoming relationship with hope, while simultaneously serving as an ominous reminder of their mismatched upbringings and attitudes.

What’s old is new again, and “Normal People” excels in this regard over 12 stirring half-hour episodes. Just as the aforementioned love stories create compelling romance through specificity and ubiquity, this new one shows great compassion for its leading couple while urging them to share much more than one feeling. Class divides, social constructs, gendered presumptions, and constantly shifting power dynamics are all inherent themes of Sally Rooney’s novel, and, as one of the screenwriters and executive producers, she makes sure they all feed into the series, as well. “Normal People” is not only a worthy retelling of a great book; it’s a remarkable love story, both epic and intimate.

“Normal People” picks up in a small town in west Ireland, with Marianne and Connell both in high school. She’s the sharp-minded weirdo, mocked by her peers for all cliquey reasons kids oust other kids; too smart for her surroundings, Marianne often speaks bluntly, questioning her teachers as if they’re just people, instead of respected authority figures, which rubs plenty of them (and her fellow students) the wrong way. “I object to every thought or action or feeling of mine being policed like we’re in some authoritarian fantasy,” Marianne says after receiving detention. “Well, it’s not that though, is it?” Connell replies. “It’s just school. It’s the same for everybody, it’s not unique for you.”

The inaccuracy of that statement is lost on the well-liked jock, but not on the audience. Though he keeps to himself, Connell isn’t an pariah like Marianne; he gets along with just about everybody and favors loyalty over examining flaws. When his friends make fun of Marianne, he doesn’t join in, but he doesn’t defend her. Connell recognizes what rung on the ladder Marianne belongs to, and know if he reaches down to help her up, he might get pushed down to the bottom, too.

Normal People tracks the tender but complicated relationship of Marianne and Connell from the end of their school days in small-town west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College. At school, heÕs well-liked and popular, while sheÕs lonely, proud and intimidating. But when Connell comes to pick up his mother from her cleaning job at MarianneÕs house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers Ð one they are determined to conceal. A year later, theyÕre both studying in Dublin and Marianne has found her feet in a new social world but Connell hangs at the side lines, shy and uncertain. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), shown. (Photo: Enda Bowe/Hulu)

Daisy Edgar-Jones in “Normal People”

Enda Bowe/Hulu

It’s their parents that bring them together, though not intentionally. Connell’s mother spends two days a week cleaning Marianne’s mother’s home, and her son stops by to pick her up after school. It’s in the front room lined with bookshelves that Connell and Marianne start talking, flirting, and share their first kiss. Soon, a full-on teen love affair breaks out, with make-out sessions in the back of the car and secret rendezvous behind the school. It’s Marianne that requests their relationship be kept between them, but only out of fear that to reveal it would mean that it never happens in the first place. Connell, being a teenage boy, sees this suggestion as acceptance, perhaps even eagerness, and doesn’t question her motivations. Instead, he continues to have the best of both worlds: an intimate, sex-filled relationship and popularity amongst his peers.

How these early dynamics affect the relationship in the years to come proves fascinating, as Connell and Marianne become an on again, off again thing throughout years of college. Internal and external divisions, perceived and felt, drive them apart and bring them together. You know the story at first, but small deviations from the norm should keep viewers engaged, like a high school dance gone awry and — not to mention the technical prowess of everyone from costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan (“Peaky Blinders”) to the beautiful direction of Lenny Abrahamson (who helms the first six episodes) and Hettie McDonald (who handles the last half). Each episode carries a distinct sense of place, aided by many lovely brogues as well as a greenish-blue hue to the surroundings; “Outlander” fans should be easily swept up all over again, though don’t expect any fantasy in this stark modern portrait. Early on, Abrahamson steadily draws in on his two leads, framing their environment to help define them before drawing closer as they talk, kiss, and make love — and they do make love a lot.

Normal People Hulu Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in “Normal People”

Enda Bowe/Hulu

The sex scenes are so plentiful they could be redundant, but even with my prudish Midwestern attitude toward watching people writhe around naked onscreen — constantly glancing over my shoulder, ready to defend what I’m watching as artistic expression and not erotica during work hours — there’s a distinction to each coupling. Edgar-Jones conveys exhaustion and exhilaration with little more than a look or a slight inflection, while Mescal holds back so much when out in the world that it makes his sex scenes all the more revealing. 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, as well, at that specific stage in their relationship.

To the writers’ credit, the half-hour structure of each episode helps clarify and separate these subtle stages. Some entries are barely over 20 minutes, and each cut to black serves as a thought-provoking punctuation mark. Still, “Normal People” engineers an uncanny dependency — compelling you to keep watching even when you want to savor what’s come before — while its hefty episode count provides an apt sense of significance. At less than six hours, “Normal People” could be seen as a quickly consumed and quickly disposed limited series, but its dozen distinct episodes help stretch the experience without bloating.

Like many great love stories, the series doesn’t provide a neat-and-tidy ending, and even though Hulu is labeling this set a limited series, Rooney has said she’s willing to explore the couple’s unseen future. Considering the profound journey within Marianne and Connell’s early life, it would only be fitting to return to them when they’re a decade older, perhaps wiser, and certainly still drawn to one another. “Normal People” could be the first work in Rooney’s “Before” trilogy, another epic and intimate romance built around an undeniable, impractical spark. After all, it may have been done before, but it hasn’t been told like this.

Grade: A

“Normal People” premieres all 12 episodes Friday, April 29 on Hulu.

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