Conversations with Friends review: Sally Rooney adaptation revels in the unspoken
From the makers of Normal People, the BBC Three and Hulu adaptation focuses on a ‘ménage à quatre’ between a wealthy Dublin-based couple and two university students.
Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Conversations with Friends opens with the phrase “Bobbi and I", introducing our narrator Frances as one half of a package deal: there is no Frances without Bobbi.
Likewise, the new, melancholic TV adaptation from BBC Three and Hulu opens with a shot of the two best friends sitting together, their heads bent over a new poem Frances has penned, as Bobbi reads it aloud.
Although the ex-lovers-turned-friends spend most of the series falling for other people, its their mutual love and will-they-won't-they relationship that provides the cornerstone of the series – and its emotional heart.
The two are performance poets; Frances (played by Alison Oliver in the Conversations with Friends cast) provides the written words, and Bobbi (a magnetic Sasha Lane) the on-stage flair and charisma. In company, this dynamic extends to another level, as Bobbi becomes the mouthpiece for them both. This is the case when a well-known “grown-up” writer, Melissa (Jemima Kirke), meets the pair at one of their gigs and congratulates them.
Keeping the series grounded (which occasionally feels almost too dreamy, in danger of floating away) is Sex Education's Jemima Kirke, who is at risk of stealing the entire series out from under its two, bright young leads – a monologue delivered by her later in the series wonderfully conveys both her character's dry-eyed heartbreak and stiff-upper-lip pragmatism.
More like this
In Rooney’s novel, Melissa suggests writing a magazine piece about the two poets, which prompts their unconventional friendship. But in the series, Bobbi is the instigator, charming a dinner invitation out of Melissa while Frances looks on.
It’s at Melissa’s (beautiful, expensive) house that the pair meet her “trophy husband”, a handsome, well-known actor, Nick (Joe Alwyn), who’s currently performing in a local production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (the series, like much of its phenomenally successful predecessor Normal People, is set in Dublin).
Nick is shy in company, like Frances, and there's an unspoken chemistry between them; they both leave the talking to their respective other halves.
All four leads excel in portraying their own characters' complicated feelings for each of the others – whether that's Melissa's flirtatious sexual chemistry with Bobbi, or else Frances' deep love for Bobbi versus the validation she gets from embarking on an affair with Nick.
Frances is certainly more introverted than Bobbi, but it’s not as simple as a lack of confidence. She seems allergic to intimacy, hiding away her vulnerabilities. She struggles to express her emotions, and won’t confide in others. It’s Bobbi who reveals that Frances is a communist, and bisexual, and that she, Bobbi, is her muse and former lover.
The only thing left unsaid is that Frances clearly still has feelings for her best friend, something that Bobbi seems to understand (an early scene sees Bobbi abruptly shut down a potentially romantic moment between them, following a night of drinking at Frances’s flat).
During dinner with the older couple, the lines are quickly drawn: the introverts, Nick and Frances, sit on one side, while extroverts Melissa and Bobbi sit on the other; the divide is physically widened when the latter pair go to sit outside and smoke and flirt. Establishing the show’s central ‘ménage à quatre’, the scene visually breaks up Frances and Bobbi, foregrounding new pairings.
Frances seems most comfortable during ‘conversations with friends’ - the kind of freewheeling, ironical, surface-level debates that she and Bobbi and their university friends enter into. She uses humour as a defence mechanism. After Nick kisses her at a party in episode 2, he texts to apologise, but she quickly steers the conversation away from sincerity and towards sarcastic humour (“Do you often kiss girls at parties?”).
Like Normal People, the series revels and swims in the unsaid, of which there is a great deal - Frances, like Connell, struggles to articulate her feelings, despite her poetic prowess (in Normal People, Connell is an award-winning short story writer).
Like Connell, she also struggles with mental health issues, and like both Marianne and Connell, she lives in a single-parent household. Her father is largely absent, although he does send her money; the casting of comedian and Derry Girls star Tommy Tiernan is a brilliant choice as Frances’s dysfunctional, laconic dad, underlining the tension between humour and sincerity.
When an unembarrassed Bobbi reveals she kissed Melissa at the same party in episode 2, Frances seems disturbed - at imagining Bobbi with someone else, or at her friend’s frankness, or both - but no closer to confiding in her about her own kiss with Nick.
Like its predecessor, Conversations with Friends is so dreamlike in feel, so populated with beautiful people and sun-drenched locations, that you almost forget the dark undertow of its characters' hurts and inner-thoughts.
Join Conversations with Friends stars Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn, alongside the show's director Lenny Abrahamson and executive producer Emma Norton, for a special Q&A at this year's BFI & Radio Times Television Festival – book your tickets here.
Conversations with Friends is released on Sunday 15th May 2022, appearing on BBC One, BBC Three and BBC iPlayer for UK viewers. Viewers based in the US can watch the 12-part series on Hulu.
The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.