The first thing you notice about Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) are their faces. They are young, relatively innocent faces, wide open to us but hidden from their schoolmates. They only light up when they’re looking at each other, as if trading glances is how they get through the day. Again and again throughout Normal People — an excellent Hulu miniseries adapted by Sally Rooney and Alice Birch from Rooney’s bestselling novel — director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) simply lingers on those faces. He trusts his actors’ expressions to tell us what we need to know about why Marianne and Connell fall in love — and, almost just as often, out of it.
The second thing you notice is their breathing. When they first hook up as teenagers in a small Irish town, she is a virgin and he is not, but they are almost immediately in sync as sexual partners. You can tell this as much by the sounds of their breaths rising and falling, growing faster and slower, as you can from the way their bodies move or the flush on their cheeks. Love scenes on film more often than not feel perfunctory, no matter how attractive the actors and how acrobatic the positions. But the ones here feel genuinely sexy, which is a crucial step to explaining the bond between Marianne and Connell. They fit together beautifully in many other ways — at least, when their respective demons aren’t keeping them at odds — but it’s when they’re in bed together that the match is the most obviously right.
The story follows the pair from secondary school through college, with each 30-minute episode checking in on them at a different stage of their ever-evolving relationship. As we first meet them, she’s the school outcast, and he’s a popular jock. But his mother, Lorraine (Sarah Greene), cleans Marianne’s palatial family home, which gives them a chance to get closer, and to find something good together — until it isn’t. Later, when they both wind up at Trinity College in Dublin, the roles have reversed, with her the social butterfly and him the brilliant loner. They drift in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes in big, dramatic ways, sometimes when one or both just isn’t paying attention. 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. Connell spends much of their early romance desperate to keep it a secret from his judgmental friends; later, he finds out they knew all along, and “no one even cared.”
This 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. Of the show’s two young stars, much is asked, and even more is given. They are spectacular — apart, but especially together — at conveying the vulnerability and longing essential to making a love story like this work.
Things get messy for both along the way. She explores BDSM — in a way that feels psychologically honest rather than exploitive — and he struggles with depression. But there are moments — a bike ride through the Italian countryside during a school holiday; an all-night Skype call when one badly needs to feel near to the other; and, especially, an important declaration made in a car on a dark and painful night — when they, and Normal People, couldn’t be more perfect.
Because the most important thing you notice about Marianne and Connell, thanks to the artistry and care with which their story is told, is how badly you want things to work out for them — for their deep, complicated, but unmistakably real love to win.
Hulu is releasing the entirety of Normal People on April 29th. I’ve seen all 12 episodes.