Review by James Mahon
The recent television series adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends (Lenny Abrahamson and Leanne Welham, 2022) has been roundly panned by the majority of critics within the mainstream media. Judged with a tone of finality – as afflicted by leaden acting – emotional superficiality, and perhaps the biggest of all, its sleep-inducing length. It is fair to say it seems to have failed to replicate the success of the previous incarnation of a Rooney novel in televisual form, Normal People (Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, 2020), but it is hard to think how anything could, particularly as Normal People seemed to materialise at just the right moment of lockdown tedium and provided a collective moment of escapism for much of the population. However – even with this considered – Conversations with Friends seems to have none of the cultural capital of its predecessor.
Yet there has been a failure to appreciate the depth of achievement of Abrahamson and Welham’s in their efforts to transfer Rooney’s words onto the screen. Whilst Normal People was largely directed by the same creative team, the universality of its story – as an explicitly heterosexual love affair rekindled from school days – made it a far more seamless process of turning it into a cinematic spectacle. Whilst it briefly touched upon the multi-faceted complexity of young adult life in the contemporary age, the singular relationship between the two main protagonists remained its central component. Conversations with Friends takes on a far more comprehensive challenge, encompassing sexuality, class distinctions, social anxiety, relationships, friendships and generational gaps in a far more substantive way. Despite this being to some, less appealing than Normal People, its rewards are much greater.
The series stays dutifully loyal to the novel. It follows a brief period in the life of Frances (Alison Oliver) and her best friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane), as the two Trinity students and exes who become slowly entangled with the world of older, affluent couple Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and Nick (Joe Alwyn). Slowly but surely, through the lens of Frances, this unnatural engagement with each other’s worlds leads to an eventual personal reckoning on a relationship level with Bobbi and Nick. The seemingly inexorable path towards this destination functions as the heart of both the television series and the novel itself.
The task of trying to evoke this fall to collaborating directors Abrahamson and Welham, who directed seven and five episodes respectively. In this they excel. The slow, incremental pace of the drama is a deliberate choice that fully immerses the audience into the mechanics of Frances’ everyday life. Seemingly miscellaneous cut scenes of Frances and Bobbi clubbing or with friends having coffee add to the layered depth of these fictions as real people undergoing the college experience. Such dutiful groundwork by Abrahamson and Welham make the more strikingly emotional scenes even more urgent and profound.
Furthermore, the cinematography of Suzie Lavelle and Bobby Shore reflects the intimacy of Rooney’s novel. The close-up camera framing of characters, whether in deep reflection or during conversation, seems to echo the interiority of Rooney’s own writing. Large panning shots of Monkstown, where Nick and Melissa live, and the overt decadence of their house communicate the class divide between both couples, especially compared to the closed off insularity of Frances’ apartment. The costume design by Lorna Marie Mugan, reinforces this fact, with the expressive student aesthetic of Bobbi and Frances in conflict with the clean and mature fashion sense of Melissa and Nick.
Yet it is the acting that is the crucial component of the whole endeavour. The characters of Melissa, played by Jemima Kirke, and Bobbi, played by Sasha Lane, are the most obviously charismatic, and both provide a credible representation of this, Lane in particular. However, Alison Oliver as Frances is simply astonishing. In her debut television role, she captures, through delicate facial expressions, silent pauses and subtle body language, the intrinsic introverted nature of Frances’ character, surprised to find herself in such a situation. Joe Alwyn, widely perceived as miscast, slowly grows into the role of the passive Nick. The chemistry between him and Oliver is palpably felt through the authenticity of the sex scenes. With a brief mention of the minor roles, Tommy Tiernan is surprisingly good as Frances’ difficult directionless father, balancing out his more comedic acting in Derry Girls. Ultimately though, the brilliance of Oliver cannot be overstated. The entire series depended on finding an actor capable of portraying the multi-dimensional Frances, and with Oliver, they found it.
All of this combines for the series, like the novel, to have a slow but definitive poignant closeness to the audience. Of course, it is not without imperfections. On occasion the dialogue is too dramatized, the level of introspection too much, but this is far outweighed by its underlying insight. It possesses an oxymoronic quality – delayed emotional immediacy, the extent of your investment into its entire world is only realised when it’s over.