'Conversations With Friends' Review: A Delicate Drama Driven By Sparkling Chemistry

As with Normal People, Irish novelist Sally Rooney's emotionally fraught post-coming-of-age tale makes for a compelling small-screen adaptation.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
5 min read
Joe Alwyn and Alison Oliver in Conversations With Friends.

Joe Alwyn and Alison Oliver in Conversations With Friends.

Hulu/BBC Three

"Who knows what happens between two people when they're alone?" Frances asks her ex-girlfriend Bobbi this question as they contemplate the marriage between two semi-famous strangers with whom they're forming a friendship -- or something like it.

But if deciphering what happens between two people is hard work, trying to untangle the crossed wires between four individuals caught up in creative, professional, emotional and romantic fixations with one another is even more complex. This is the task at the heart of Conversation With Friends, an atmospheric and emotionally fraught adaptation of Sally Rooney's 2017 debut novel premiering on May 15 on Hulu (US) and BBC Three (UK), and on May 16 on Amazon Prime Video (Australia).

Inevitably, the show will draw comparisons not only to its source material, but to the 2020 adaptation of Rooney's novel 2018 Normal People. Thanks to this earlier BBC/Hulu effort, we have a model for how Rooney's deeply studied interiority successfully translates to the screen. 

Normal People was the more critically acclaimed of the two novels, making the prestigious Booker longlist. The TV adaptation then racked up multiple award nominations, although it didn't win any of the Emmys it was nominated for. The much-anticipated Conversations with Friends has a lot to live up to, but proves itself equally accomplished. Deciding which of the adaptations Rooney fans prefer may be a simple reflection of how they feel about her novels.

Normal People's writer-director team of Alice Birch and Lenny Abrahamson return here (with the addition of Leanne Welham), and it's clear from the off the two shows share the same DNA. Long, lingering shots and a generally unhurried pacing create negative space for even the smallest gestures (painkillers slipped under the bathroom door, a wince, a sly sideways glance) to take on significance that speaks to the tensions building in all directions between the central characters.

While both stories are concerned with the intricacies of attraction, the two diverge distinctly. Where Normal People neatly ticked the coming-of-age box, Conversations With Friends is a post-coming-of-age tale, examining what happens when young adults begin to stray away from the cocoon-like world of education and find themselves messily thrust into the mix with the rest of us.

Playing the established adults we have Jemima Kirke (Girls and Sex Education) as extroverted writer Melissa, and Joe Alywn (The Favourite) as diffident actor Nick . Their marriage is something of a puzzle to current students and former girlfriends Bobbi, played by Sasha Lane (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), and Frances, played by newcomer Alison Oliver. Frances and Bobbi find themselves pulled into Melissa's orbit when she attends one of their spoken-word poetry performances, and while Bobbi quickly grows close to Melissa, Frances embarks on an affair with Nick.

Taking on any of these roles wouldn't be for the faint of heart -- with a cast this small and a script packed with this much raw vulnerability, there's nowhere to hide. But the strong and capable ensemble convened by the directorial team carries the intensity of the drama with sparkling chemistry.

As a result, Conversations With Friends is a thoughtful companion piece to its source material, a truly artful flip of the coin. Rooney's novel occupies the space inside of Frances' mind, narrating her experiences and observations of those around her, often with cynicism and sharpness. But here we have the bird's-eye view, and from the outside, all four characters are rounded out, showing each of them as frustrating, sympathetic and conflicted in turn.

Die-hard Rooney fans often describe feeling as though the author is inside their head. I've always interpreted this to mean she allows her protagonists to verbalize ideas and emotions they may not have thought or dared to, perhaps helping crystallize the half-formed ideas that have rolled around in their minds.

Here, there is much less telling and much more showing, meaning much of the eloquence of Rooney's (and therefore Frances') voice is gone. Depending on how you enjoy Rooney's writing, this may either be to the show's detriment or its benefit. Instead, we're left to observe and interpret. Fortunately, Oliver and Alwyn are hypnotic to watch, especially in their attempts to communicate coherently with one another.

The show doesn't avert its gaze from the awkward hesitations and stilted, sometimes stuttering attempts at conversation between Frances and Nick, which are offset by the instant camaraderie between Melissa and Bobbi. This contrast serves as a good reminder that attraction doesn't always manifest in two people slipping into easy, flirtatious banter, and in reality can result in a struggle as we attempt to make ourselves seen, understood and admired, all while second guessing ourselves and trying to get a read on someone new.

Prudish viewers who balked at the sex scenes in Normal People should be aware that while there's none of its full-frontal nudity here (at least in the first five episodes of 12), Frances and Nick's affair is depicted in explicit detail. This feels like an entirely necessary extension of their conversations, as physically, they seem able to articulate all that they struggle to when simply talking or texting. There's also real delight to be found in how Frances and Nick seem to surprise themselves by what they're doing, even more than they surprise each other.

As well suited as Alwyn is to playing an enigma, Kirke thrives in portraying a character as charismatic as Melissa, creating a perfectly balanced juxtaposition of personalities that convincingly fuel Bobbi and Frances' curiosity about their marriage. Lane as Bobbi matches Kirke's brightness and warmth, but she's not simply a foil to Oliver's watchfulness. In her quieter moments of observance, Lane allows Bobbi's youthful insecurity to emerge, which helps keep the power dynamic between her and Frances in flux.

Alison Oliver stands with her arms around Sasha Lane

Alison Oliver and Sasha Lane star as former girlfriends Frances and Bobbi.

Hulu/BBC Three

How their clearly unresolved feelings for one another will play out amid their ongoing entanglement with Melissa and Nick is the question that drives the show from the moment after the opening credits have rolled.

We see Frances pursue "impermanence" both through her performance poetry and her affair with Nick, even though she confesses permanence is something she's "trying for" -- "it just doesn't feel possible," she says. Whether she finds her way to anything resembling permanence is something that will keep viewers glued to their screens. In this compelling drama, we become attuned to every fluctuation in Oliver's delicate portrayal of Frances at every step and misstep of her journey.

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