Zadie Smith’s NW is a grim but compelling tale of casual violence, class and desire

Phoebe Fox and Nikki Amuka-Bird star in this tense 90 minute ode to London - and the horror and wonder in its corners


If you’ve read Zadie Smith’s novel NW then you’ll know it’s a strange, sprawling story – and you may well wonder how on earth someone managed to adapt such an unstructured book full of trailing threads and the stream-of-consciousness writing. If you haven’t read it, it’s wonderful – but definitely weird.


So the very fact that a 90 minute drama of NW exists is a feat in itself – adaptor Rachel Bennette (she also worked on Ripper Street) had no contact with Smith while writing or making the drama and the entire thing was shot in three weeks. 

But aside from the fact that it’s impressively adapted, NW is brilliant TV in its own right. It’s the sort of drama that you watch straight through, a bit breathlessly, without once thinking about getting a cup of tea.

It’s certainly not a cosy story – it focusses on Leah Hanwell (Phoebe Fox), a 30-something-year-old in North West London’s Willesden, who was brought up on a council estate and lives with her French-African husband Michel (Cyril Guei). She spends time with her childhood friend Natalie Blake (Nikki Amuka-Bird) who grew up on the same estate, but is now a hotshot lawyer who embodies the idea of self made success. Natalie – who changed her name from Keisha- re-invented herself as a middle class dream in a way Margaret Thatcher would have applauded – and now she hosts sparkly dinner parties where she talks about the working class with a coldness that shocks Leah and mars their friendship. 

NW is difficult to write about because it’s about everything – race, class, love, desire, sex, gender, hatred and violence are all intermingled. It’s also very much about identity – where you’ve come from, where you’re going, how you see the world – and how even the strongest people can lose a sense of themselves. 

The best thing about the drama is that its about complex, nuanced women rather than the tortured male souls who take up so much space in literature. Leah’s husband is absolutely lovely, loyal (incredibly handsome, too) and wants a baby. Subverting stereotypes, it’s Leah who doesn’t want to ‘move forward’ and get pregnant- she feels immense pressure to be a mother but secretly she has no desire to be one. Phoebe Fox plays this subtly and movingly.

Equally, Natalie’s home life  is gleamingly perfect, with her good looking, reliable husband who has the nicest wine glasses in North London – but she has secret longings and desires which make her self destruct and stray in a way usually reserved for male characters. These women’s problems, for once, go well beyond the men in their lives. 

It’s refreshing to see females causing the trouble, making life difficult, in a world where they often stand quietly and put up with things simply because they’re supposed to.

We also encounter other local characters who reveal different, surprising aspects of multicultural North London life, with plot lines full of extreme heart-ache and joy. Willesden, where almost all the drama is set, is shown in all its grittiness. And boy, there’s a lot of grit. Director Saul Dibb (Line of Beauty) shows us flashes of shocking violence, ugliness, addiction and desperation in a place where gentrification might be bringing in money – but certainly not to the Leah’s schoolfriend pleading with strangers for a quid at the tube station. 

NW isn’t an escapist watch to lift your spirits on a dark winter’s night when Donald Trump is the leader of the ‘free world’. Instead it’s a wonderfully in-yer-face look at urban life and modernity – and how beautiful but brutal that can be. 


NW will air on BBC Two on Monday 14th November at 9pm.