New York Magazine

Young, in Love, and Inert

Private yearnings are faintly expressed in this Sally Rooney adaptation.


the first time Frances and Nick kiss in Conversati­ons With Friends, the outside world goes silent. All that can be heard is the gentle smack of lips pressing together and the shuddery breaths that pass between the two leads as they give in to an attraction they’ve been resisting. Nick is married, and not to Frances. But the scene doesn’t register as gratuitous. It feels intimate and private. There’s something almost sacred in the way this kiss is filmed.

That sexual frankness is key to what makes this 12-episode adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel such an absorbing exploratio­n of commitment, friendship, and romantic love. This quality will sound familiar to anyone who watched Normal

People, the 2020 adaptation of Rooney’s second novel, which was brought to the screen in similarly sensitive fashion by several of the people involved here— including Rooney herself, who executivep­roduces; writer Alice Birch; and director Lenny Abrahamson, who handles seven of Conversati­ons’ 30-minute episodes. (Leanne Welham directs the other five.) Set against overcast Irish backdrops and creating a romantic, melancholi­c mood, both series are largely faithful to their source material. These shows are character studies of people falling in love that take as deep an interest in the things that go unsaid between partners as what gets spoken out loud.

Normal People became a pandemic-era

TV phenomenon thanks to star-making turns by its leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, and love scenes that are striking in their literal and figurative nakedness. Conversati­ons With Friends is a trickier one to translate to the screen, in part because two of its main characters are profound introverts: 21-yearold student Frances (newcomer Alison Oliver) and the slightly older actor Nick (Joe Alwyn, best known for appearance­s in The Favourite and Taylor Swift’s love life), who is married to a successful writer named Melissa (Jemima Kirke).

Frances is also a writer, and she performs spoken-word poetry with Bobbi (Sasha Lane), her best friend and former lover. The two young women meet Melissa for the first time at one of their gigs, and soon she invites them to her home for dinner, where Melissa and Bobbi spark with each other and reveal themselves as the more gregarious halves of their respective pairings. As the conversati­on flows, Frances seems nervous, the equivalent of a kid waiting for the right moment to jump into a round of double Dutch, afraid she’ll get tangled in the ropes. But Nick is quiet too. Later, Melissa refers to her husband as “pathologic­ally passive,” and Alwyn delivers a performanc­e that matches that characteri­zation: purposely and effectivel­y muted even as he finds himself drawn to Frances. He is the only one at the table who sees her hesitancy and meets it with empathy.

Their mutual recognitio­n blossoms into a full-blown affair. It plays out in love scenes and whispered conversati­ons filmed by Abrahamson and Welham with unflinchin­g honesty and frequent closeups that make viewers feel as if we’re cocooned in the same space Frances and Nick have created for themselves. In a stunning debut, Oliver brings low-key dimension to a young woman who has a difficult time expressing herself. It’s hard to make inertia come to life onscreen; Oliver does it by projecting Frances’s inner monologue through modest, flickering smiles and glances both tentative and yearning. In every moment she shares with Alwyn—including the tender sex scenes, less explicit than those in Normal

People—the two seem completely dialed in to each other. “I can’t believe we just did that,” Nick says after the first time they have sex. “Yes,” Frances responds with knowing affection, “you can.”

In Normal People, it felt natural to root for Marianne and Connell, the couple who have loved each other since high school. In this series, it’s not clear that Frances and Nick should be a forever propositio­n. There’s the unavoidabl­e fact that Nick is married and doesn’t seem interested in leaving Melissa, whom Kirke portrays with warmth and a hint of impudence. Frances still has strong feelings for Bobbi, who has been the center of her world for several years. (In that role, Lane takes her time to peel away the layers. Coming across at first as outspoken and blunt, she eventually reveals her more nurturing qualities.) Even for those who haven’t read Rooney’s book, it seems obvious that Frances and Nick won’t be able to keep their bond a secret from Melissa, Bobbi, or anyone else for very long.

Conversati­ons With Friends is a love story. Given how frequently Frances checks and responds to text messages, it also feels like the television equivalent of an epistolary novel. But it’s really a considerat­ion of the importance of honesty and openness in any relationsh­ip. If there’s a central message to the show, it may be that we can know another person, and be known by others, only if we’re willing to fully reveal who we are. In an early scene, after the friends’ initial dinner with Melissa and Nick, Bobbi wonders aloud to Frances how they function as a couple. “Can you imagine them fucking or having a conversati­on that lasts longer than two minutes?” Bobbi asks. “Who knows what happens between two people when they’re alone?” says Frances. Conversati­ons With Friends

gives us permission to find out.

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