Conversations between friends: the frustrating awkwardness of a high-profile series | Television

IIt was always unlikely Conversations with Friends, the new Hulu and BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, could repeat Normal People’s crush. This latest show, another Hulu/BBC production based on Rooney’s best-selling second novel and released in April 2020, was the rare combination of the right material, the right time. Its simple, yet elegantly told premise – an on-and-off boy-girl love story spanning several years – and naturalist, really hot depictions of physical intimacy (one sex scene lasted 9 minutes and 24 seconds, a full third of the episode) struck a nerve during a period of mass isolation.

Conversations with friends are a harder sell. The book and series follow a thorny quadrangle of sex and friendship between two best friends/ex-lovers and an older married couple – neither of whom, in classic Rooney fashion, seem left to their own motives. It’s a darker entanglement than Normal People, made even more inaccessible by the characters’ psychological opacity and general aversion to speech. Key figures from Normal People – Irish production company Element Pictures, director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Alice Birch – strive to achieve a similar quiet, meditative realism on Conversations, with characters communicating more frequently and significantly, by SMS and by e-mail. (Rooney co-wrote the first half of Normal People, but has no official role in that series.)

Maintaining both Rooney’s reticent style and digital communication is a tall order, and the loss to translation is a palpable absence. Conversations with Friends is often beautiful and decidedly naturalistic – we see the characters in transit, dressing up, texting with clear time stamps for summer 2019 – but keeps its characters terse, two-dimensional and frustratingly impenetrable. It’s a curiously flat mix – pretty people in pretty places, decent acting (especially from protagonists Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn), and well-choreographed, real-life sex scenes that usually turn cold. .

As in the book, the show takes the perspective of Frances, played by Irish newcomer Oliver, a 21-year-old college student who performs spoken word with Bobbi (American Honey’s Sasha Lane), catching the eye of the 30-something Melissa (Girls’ Jemima Kirke), an essayist and sophisticated. In the book, Frances and Melissa’s husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn), both awkward in social situations, flirts over email before embarking on an affair. On screen, this happens in two episodes with little to say between them beyond the spaced out sentences. “I will send you an e-mail. It will be full of compliments in full sentences,” Nick tells her in the first episode after watching her poetry show. “We won’t even need to make eye contact,” she replies. To quote Frances in any tense situation: OK.

Like Marianne of Normal People, Frances is a typical Rooney protagonist: intellectual, thin, confident when expressing her leftist views, aloof and mute when verbalizing her feelings. What can be detailed in the book as neuroticism presents itself on screen as a coldness, an inexplicable silence. Nick and Frances are two awkward people who often behave awkwardly and convey that discomfort — or, given how little discernment these characters have, emptiness — to the audience. Their many sex scenes, which like Normal People employed an intimacy coordinator, are expertly choreographed and filmed with sensitivity, but lack fundamental chemistry – motion without feelings. When Frances tells him, in bed during a vacation in Croatia with Bobbi and Melissa, that she doubted his interest in her because “you don’t always seem so enthusiastic”, he replies that it’s not her – “it it’s me, I’m just annoying.” She replies, “me too, of course”, and they kiss.

This awkwardness pervades the entire 12-episode season, which struggles to capture Rooney’s psychological insights into the absurd performance and isolation of millennial life. This is partly due to Rooney’s minimalist style – the prose is mostly action and dialogue, with characters unwilling to voice their reasoning. The novel leans heavily on digital communication – Rooney didn’t earn his reputation as a millennial author for nothing – which is notoriously difficult to bring to the screen. Someone staring at their phone is inherently non-cinematic.

That being said, I found the show’s unhurried portrayal of messaging – a publicly available chat history, watching characters use autocorrect, type, and erase – to be one of its elements. the most evocative, in part because it is still rare to see the weight of digital communication on our lives accurately reflected on screen. As the physical conversations drag on, leaving us wondering why either party wanted this affair or clung to this friendship, the texts — and the way Frances handled them — are telling. Her interactions with Nick and Bobbi – shown to the viewer and, for the longer messages, told aloud – testify to the gap between what is said and what is felt in the way conversations simply don’t. . Frances looks at her phone, scrolls through old messages (“Are we still having an affair?”), dwells on words from the past, becomes fixated. The texts have the thrill of specific intimacy (Nick’s texts in lowercase) and the thrill of secrecy. That they resonate with both Frances and the viewer – we’re also on the phone – adds dimension to her emotions, despair and confusion, flattened by her behavior in person.

Ironically, it’s the bottled conversations that get in the way of the show. Frances and Bobbi are supposed to be close, but there’s not much to their relationship beyond flimsy gestures of physical closeness, in brief sequences on the dance floor. It doesn’t help that Lane plays Bobbi as cold and inquisitive, which makes most people’s disdain for the character almost unbearable by the later episodes of the season. You have to earn the characters ability to say nothing for several hours, and Conversations with Friends doesn’t.

In other words, it’s like a lot of TV shows – flawed and sometimes unwieldy, sometimes functional and sometimes not, a jumble of elements tending to its illusion. That Normal People has transcended the leap to the screen is, in rearview mirror, remarkable and fortuitous. Conversations with friends took on a more difficult task and landed in the vast medium of television: enjoyable to watch but not as deep as they try to be, watchable but unlikely to cause much discussion.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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