It is a universally recognized truth – at least among people of a certain age and of a certain socio-economic group – that Conversations with friends is Sally Rooney’s best novel, a superior debut to her acclaimed sequel, normal people. So it’s no surprise to see the BBC return to the territory that made the 2020s normal people one of the first real successes of containment, a tiger king for the generation that blithely squanders its mortgage money on turmeric lattes. Conversations with friends revisits the formula so faithfully that even the absence of any narrative continuity cannot prevent this feeling of sequel.
Conversations with friends follows the tangled lives of Frances (newcomer Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (American honey‘s Sasha Lane), who are best friends, ex-lovers and, to their eternal shame, performance poets. “You guys are pretty intense together,” Nick (The favourite‘s Joe Alwyn) watches, after the duo were chained to dinner by his wife Melissa (Girls‘Jemima Kirke). Nick and Melissa, actor and writer respectively, become sources of fixation for the girls. Frances develops an all-consuming, highly rewarded crush on Nick, while Bobbi drifts into a flirtatious repartee with Melissa. “Can you actually imagine them alone?” asks Bobbi, as she and Frances come into full force in this marriage.
As viewers, we don’t have to (even if we want to). Conversations with friends is a story of home invasion: Frances and Bobbi blow like a strong wind from the Irish Sea. Frances, a self-proclaimed communist, goes wild over the couple’s mid-century furniture. “Your house is very cool,” she said. “You’re both adults,” adds Bobbi. This glossy veneer of Nick and Melissa’s life – the essential capitalist impulse to consume and own – is the series’ central, but agnostic, critique. When asked why she writes poetry, Frances replies that she likes “the impermanence of it”. “I feel a little sick when I think it lasts forever,” she adds. Eventually, she regains her mind, her body, her experiences, all commodified by her affair with Nick. Cue a lot of unfortunate thinking about humanity’s terminal state of misery.
The story is Frances, and Alison Oliver – all anxiously biting her lip and nervously swallowing hard – carries more than the part. She’s a solitary Celtic presence in a production that feels distinctly un-Irish: Bobbi is now American and Melissa English. These performances feel very much within their actors’ established ranges (oh wow, that’s Jemima Kirke playing a woman who masks her vulnerability with boisterous confidence!) but there’s a wealth of charisma flowing through. London lad Joe Alwyn (who bears an uncanny resemblance, it must be said, to a golden retriever) affects an Irish beat so subtle it’s almost undetectable, but manages to capture something of Nick’s asexual sex appeal (like a Ken well-read and emotionally manipulative doll).
Conversations with friends it’s long. The series lasts 12 episodes. My UK edition of the novel is 321 pages, which means, various boffins assure me, that each episode is about 27 pages of action. The problem of extension (or compression) is endemic in the adaptation of novels, but the pace of Conversations with friends feels so indulgently languorous, the medium (whether in Ireland or Croatia) so oppressively repetitive, that the effect is, at best, hypnotic, and, at worst, soporific. “It’s a good play,” Nick says of Tennessee Williams Cat on a hot tin roof, “where things happen”. This, he seems to announce proudly, is the opposite.
While undoubtedly slow, solipsistic and self-satisfied, the show has an ambient appeal. It’s a TV designed to be watched out of the corner of your eye while scrolling through Instagram, watching strangers on two screens simultaneously. And if the prospect of watching the lives of a group of rather ok millennials unfold at a pace more akin to Captain Tom than Mo Farah doesn’t excite you, there are plenty of close-ups of beautiful people kissing for distract you. At the end, Conversations with friendslike his characters, doesn’t have much to say, but takes his time to say it.
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