Sally Rooney’s prose, simple as it may sound, is most seductive because of the complexity it can contain. In the first chapter of his novel, conversation between friends, its narrator, a young woman named Frances, sketches out her temperament for us in a few flashes. “I couldn’t think of anything witty to say,” she said at one point, “and it was hard to arrange my face in a way that would convey my sense of humor.” Frances’ constant self-examination makes her an exciting and vexing narrator. But what’s great on the page isn’t necessarily the best fodder for what’s great on screen. In the wake of Hulu normal peopleanother Rooney adaptation directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) which was an achingly tender take on budding and constructed intimacies, the streamer is back with Conversations with friends. And the results are mixed at best.
As Frances, the wayward poet who falls for a dashing married man (an actor, of course), Alison Oliver had a naturally difficult task at hand. Frances lives in her head, constantly mulling over her actions, her words, her fears. She’s the kind of person who prefers to do spoken word for fear of writing anything down on paper and having it live outside of herself. (“I like the impermanence of it all,” she admits.) He’s an introverted character, a witness to his own life. To Oliver’s credit, she finds ways to make such interiority readable throughout. conversation between friends, managing to seize it with a sidelong glance or a furtive blush. And yes, she comes to life when she meets Nick (Joe Alwyn). Suddenly, she’s no longer on the sidelines or playing second fiddle to her gregarious friend Bobbie (the ever-sunny Sasha Lane). With Nick, she finally feels seen, even though she knows that such looks are bound to be fleeting. He is married, after all. And maybe as distant as she is. Their awkward early flirtations are charming and more grounded than such scenes often tend to be. “What are you writing about? Nick asks him before immediately regretting it: “That’s a terrible question.” They work their way into a case where her need to be seen is so obviously transparent that she knows she’s too involved.
And it’s all for one man’s affection. And therein lies what makes this miniseries wobble.
Nick is meant to be the catalyst for something changing within Frances; Otherwise, why would she start an affair with a man married to the older woman her best friend is also courting? (Yes, both show and novel may hint at a friendly dynamic, but the intimacies explored here are decidedly more lascivious.) And finally, Alwyn, who is a fine specimen (we understand why Oliver’s Frances would be reluctant to stroke his naked body, fearing he’d disappear and proving himself to be a figment of his overflowing imagination), can never quite grasp the magnetic pull his character is meant to project. It’s not helped by a script that’s both sparse and over-determined, which occasionally makes its characters hear what would otherwise remain an interior monologue in Rooney’s words. (“You think things and don’t say them,” Frances is told at one point.)
It’s no surprise that the show feels more electric when it forgoes dialogue entirely. The sequences where Frances anxiously checks her phone for a lonely text from Nick, or when she twirls her hair when she knows she’s being watched really become ordinary moments loaded with outsized emotion. (Side note: kudos to Abrahamson for filming his actors typing on phones and not relying, as so many productions do these days, on typing on green screen props where the actual typing is added in post; it’s silly to focus on these details, but it’s refreshing to see such digital conversations have tactility about them.)
As Nick and Frances’ relationship blossoms (and fluctuates), Conversations with friends offers glimmers of a fascinating proposition. Namely, Rooney’s book. “The Novel Is Better” sounds like such a tired line, but there’s something to be said for the expansive interiority prose allowed and how a television adaptation can reduce rather than distill such sensibility. Then again, as Frances reminds us, the permanence of Rooney’s words is still there, for all of us to find, even after wading through this adaptation wondering why those words alone weren’t enough.
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