tv review

Conversations With Friends Thrives on What Goes Unsaid

Playing two profound introverts, Joe Alwyn and newcomer Alison Oliver are completely dialed into each other in their scenes together. Photo: Enda Bowe/ HULU

The first time that 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 them as they give into an attraction they’ve been resisting; Nick is married, and not to Frances. But the scene does not 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 adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, premiering all 12 of its episodes on May 15, such an absorbing exploration of commitment, friendship, and romantic love. It’s a quality that will sound familiar to anyone who watched Normal People, the 2020 Hulu adaptation of Rooney’s second novel, which was translated to the screen in similarly sensitive fashion by several of the people involved here — including Rooney herself, who executive-produces, writer Alice Birch, and director Lenny Abrahamson, who handles seven of Conversations’ 30-minute episodes. (Leanne Welham directs the other five.) Both series are largely faithful to their source materials, set against overcast Irish backdrops and striking a romantic, melancholic mood. 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 were striking in their literal and figurative nakedness. Conversations With Friends is certainly the trickier one to translate to the screen because two of its main characters are profound introverts: 21-year-old 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 who performs spoken-word poetry with Bobbi (Sasha Lane of American Honey and Loki), 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 in on a round of Double Dutch, afraid she’ll get tangled in the ropes. But Nick is quiet, too. Later, Melissa will refer 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. This plays out in love scenes and whispered conversations filmed by Abrahamson and Welham with unflinching honesty and frequent close-ups that make viewers feel like 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 into 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 had 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, portrayed by Kirke with warmth but also more than a few hints at impudence. Frances also still has strong feelings for Bobbi, the person who has been the center of her world for the past 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 — one enhanced by a pop soundtrack of Roxy Music and the Irish band Wyvern Lingo, who do a gorgeous, spare cover of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” Given how frequently Frances checks and responds to text messages and email, it also feels like the modern television equivalent of an epistolary novel. But it’s really a consideration of the importance of honesty and openness in any relationship. While Frances covers up what’s happening with Nick, she also fails to share the true nature of her own serious health condition with him, Bobbi, or even her mother (Justine Mitchell). But what may look like a selfish tendency to withhold can be seen as a struggle to be vulnerable when considered through Frances’s point of view.

If there’s a central message to Conversations With Friends, it may be that one can only know another person, and be known by others, if they’re willing to fully reveal who they are. In an early scene, after the friends’ initial dinner with Melissa and Nick, Bobbi wonders out loud 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.

Conversations With Friends Thrives on What Goes Unsaid