I have mixed feelings about Conversations with Friends, an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s first novel by the team that previously made Normal People (her second) for television (Lenny Abrahamson directs, and this series, too, comes in half-hour episodes). On the one hand, it’s pitch-perfect: every line rings true. On the other, it’s almost decadently listless; only in episode five, when our ménage à quatre swaps Dublin for Croatia and the cicadas start agitatedly to sing, do things pick up.
Of course, I understand that languor is half of the point. If Conversations with Friends is about the pain of misspent love, it’s also about ennui; there’s a reason the story is set in the summer. But what works on the page doesn’t necessarily strike home on screen. However accomplished its verisimilitude – its hesitations, ellipses and silences – sometimes you need a touch of artifice, too.
Do you know the story? It’s an emotional quadrille. Diffident Frances (Alison Oliver) and her bolshie ex-girlfriend from school, Bobbi (Sasha Lane), are college students with a sideline in performance poetry, and at one of their gigs they meet Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a writer in her thirties. She takes to them – for all her publishing success, she is in need of distraction – and invites them to her home in a ritzy part of Dublin, where they meet her husband, an actor called Nick (Joe Alwyn).
From here, everything else follows. Bobbi fancies Melissa, who flirts with her instinctively, and Frances is taken with Nick, with whom, sphinx-like, she shares a tendency to quiet. They begin an affair about which Frances is determined to be nonchalant. But alas, unlike the head, the heart is not an ironic organ; it doesn’t shrug life off, and only rarely is it biddable. Quite soon, she is in agony, though no one would know it from her glazed exterior.
Will Conversations with Friends be as big a hit as Normal People was? I’m not sure. When the latter was screened, we were deep in lockdown; its claustrophobia was right for the moment, and in any case, we had nothing else to do. But on balance, I still prefer this series. I completely adore Alison Oliver, a newcomer, whose face, initially so blank, turns out to be so crazily expressive. The others are all perfectly fine: Lane is suitably annoying (how do they all stand Bobbi?); Alwyn is good at being absent even when present, and catches the blithe masculine cruelty, whether conscious or not, that cuts Frances to the quick; Kirke is deliciously grand at moments, her character almost painfully aware of her position in this unlikely hierarchy, something that makes her both generous and mannered. But it’s Oliver’s performance, all innocence and slyness and inward pain, that keeps you watching.
Some will imagine that this series is only for the young, or for fans of Rooney. (Or are they the same thing?) But the tortuous situation it examines so forensically is, in my experience, much more common than you might think, if not entirely universal. Whatever Rooney and, by extension, the producers of this series have to tell us about a generation, they have vastly more to say about what it means to be in love with the wrong person; with someone who may like you a great deal, but who is really only using you as a salve for their own sadness; who is ultimately incapable of loving you truly and deeply; who will string you along until cowardice gets the better of them.
Conversations with Friends is about the lies people tell themselves to survive this predicament – and haven’t we all been there? I love the way it uses text messages. Watching Frances as she taps out notes to Nick that she really shouldn’t, and then waits (and waits) for a reply, is excruciating. Oh, the relief that comes with a halfway loving response! And yet, even as it floods her body, the feeling is already fading. Always, she wants more. Only a truly talented actor could make an audience – one that probably has its own phone in its hand even as it watches – really feel this, and Oliver does, every time. My advice: hang on for Croatia, when Kerry Fox, who plays Melissa’s tyrannical agent, appears. By the swimming pool, the tension is almost unbearable.
Conversations with Friends
BBC Three; 15 May, 10pm
This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer