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► Conversations with Friends (12 episodes) is on BBC3 and iPlayer weekly from 15 May.

Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), is a circuitous depiction of a young woman’s self-discovery, and a screen adaptation was always going to be a tricky proposition. But thanks to the success of Lenny Abrahamson’s take on Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, in 2020, a 12-episode adaptation of its predecessor has come into view. Though distinct stories, they are very much companion pieces, with Conversations with Friends sharing many of its sibling’s themes and backstage personnel. It too has been produced by Element Pictures for BBC Three and Hulu, and Lenny Abrahamson is back as producer and director of the first few episodes. Rooney, however, who co-wrote the first six episodes of Normal People with lead writer Alice Birch, has stepped away, and Birch now shares writing duties with playwright Meadhbh McHugh and actor-screenwriter Mark O’Halloran, the latter of whom wrote wrote Abrahamson’s first features Adam & Paul (2004) and Garage (2007).

Judging from the first five episodes, the series hews closely to the novel’s general scope and shape – hinged to introverted Frances (Alison Oliver), university student and aspiring poet, and her evolving hold on her sense of self as she falls further into a relationship with Nick (Joe Alwyn), a handsome but self-effacing actor, who is older and married. What starts as a shared but awkward and speculative crush gradually turns into a full-blown affair, and a love quadrangle involving Frances’s best friend and old flame Bobbi (Sasha Lane) and Nick’s slightly estranged wife Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a successful author. 

Jemima Kirke and Joe Alwyn in Conversations with Friends

This imbroglio mingles with class anxieties – Frances and Bobbi, solidly middle-class but precarious students, get the chance to enjoy Melissa and Nick’s upper middle-class existence. One significant change from the book is how the series doubles down on class relations, and tensions, by internationalising them: Bobbi is not only American but mixed-race, while Nick and Melissa are also not just privileged South Dubliners but English too. The best moments are when this dynamic is fought out by the two strongest actors, Lane and Kirke, with meek Frances wedged between Bobbi’s playful, open rebellion and Melissa’s unflinchingly friendly hauteur.

Despite an interesting, able cast, there’s frequently a disconnect, a lack of chemistry; nor does the brevity of the episodes counteract a sluggish, repetitive quality. Abrahamson’s very direct instincts as a dramatist clash with slippery source material that holds no straightforward recipe for clear and bold dramaturgy. In the book’s first-person stratagem, Frances’s irresolute character is clarified and complicated by an equivocating interior monologue, which also renders a blinkered, fluctuating view of other characters’ motivations.

Jemima Kirke and Sasha Lane in Conversations with Friends

Abrahamson and DP Suzie Lavelle try to translate this ambiguous, limited perspective visually through a restricted, even claustrophobic field of vision, with a focus on body language and its unspoken volubility. But the choppy editing is out of sync with the performers and nuance goes out the window. Rooney’s potent, tangible yet elusive use of emails and instant messages is rendered on screen in clumsy shot/reverse-shot set-ups of Frances and her phone. They’re devoid of any real feeling for the swarming insecurities of attraction channeled through digital communication.

The broad story could have made for convincing melodrama, but Abrahamson again chooses a muted tone and palette that tamps down any emotional or sensual frisson. Frances and Nick’s sex scenes are shot with the same coldness as those in Normal People – for which Abrahamson and Lavelle had name-checked the photographer Nan Goldin as inspiration; but Goldin’s unsentimental, open-armed love of the flesh seems far from this clean, hazily lit sexual melancholia. These supposed eruptions of passion and pleasure, meant to rattle two bottled-up individuals caught up in bourgeois malaise and complacency, ring false. Though the series may shift and improve, as it stands it is too broad and undercooked to convincingly express the complex highs and lows of sex or the knots of self-realisation.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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