It’s here! The television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s other bestseller, Conversations with Friends, airs on RTÉ One at 9.35pm, on May 18. As Rooney’s adaptations tend to do, the series has already begun to generate discussion – even, debate – about its quality, characters’ likeability, acting and setting. With the insight of the first two episodes, THE GLOSS advises on what you can come to expect from the Lenny Abrahamson-directed production…
The quiet elegance of Alison Oliver
The standout star of the series is evident ten minutes into the first episode – it’s Alison Oliver. Playing subdued Frances, forging life as a sensitive arts student/poet from Ballinasloe against an imposing Dublin backdrop, Oliver expertly performs a watchful, conscious character – with the ability to perform slam poetry – without ever striking a contradictory note.
While Frances of the book had the capacity to strike the reader, at times, as precocious, or judgmental, Frances of the series carries a palpable, hesitant kind of shame that is instantly relatable to young Irish women. Every shot of Oliver walking Dublin streets is a demonstration of a cautious character – her walk is a plod, rather than a stride. Her choices are made in wide-eyed youth, and not in performance of ego. We like her.
Joe Alwyn’s surprising shyness – and South Dublin accent
Joe Alwyn, his ears possibly still ringing from his acclaim from playing Samuel Marsham in The Favourite (another Element Pictures hit) and screaming Taylor Swift fans, does another impressive job as Nick, the handsome-but-lost Irish actor seemingly floundering in his marriage to famous writer Melissa, played by Jemima Kirke.
Like Oliver, Alwyn takes up the charge of a potentially-pretentious character and ably portrays Nick as Believably-Lost Soul, rather than Woe-Is-Me Soft-Boy. Even as Alwyn sits in his stunning kitchen he shares with his wife – diligently softening his Ts in a strong portrayal of an arguably difficult Dublin lilt – he comes across as a careful listener, even shy.
Electric chemistry among the cast
Casting and production, tasked with finding the right players to slot under the microscope in this intense character study that is Conversations with Friends, were charged with a double challenge – figuring out how to evaluate the candidates’ chemistry over Zoom.
Talking to the audience at the Lighthouse screening on May 12, producer Jeanie Igoe explained how the casting process began in the thick of the pandemic, meaning the script reads happened over a virtual medium. It’s unthinkable that such accurate pairing of actors came about in this realm – knowing now how frustrating and alienating, at times, that digital experience of 2020 was for everyone.
Igoe explained that such chemistry was instant and obvious with Sasha Lane and Alison Oliver, playing leads Bobbi and Frances. A friendship with an apparently complicated sexual history, when you watch the first episode it’s hard to believe that they first managed to capture the complex connection at a physical distance.
It also needs to be said that a lounging, depressed Tommy Tiernan – ever in the role of apologetic Irish father – raised a chortle from the audience as his exasperated on-screen daughter is left to make the tea. A far cry from Derry Girls, Tiernan seems to work perfectly in any genre of TV as Tragic Dad… and that is meant in the most flattering of terms!
A soundtrack to break your heart
The Conversations with Friends soundtrack is well-paired to the scenes, taking on a youthful, melancholic-pop-infused vibe with familiar Irish voices. Adding a sense of self-aware liveliness to the watery, beautifully-shot scenes, our favourite musical appearances in the first and second episodes include the formidable and funny CMAT and enigmatic, 80s-inspired Soda Blonde.
The fifth main character
Trinity College’s Berkeley library, Salthill/Monkstown Dart station, Chez Max… The fifth main character in the series is certainly Dublin city. She gets as much airtime, and is studied just as closely, as Nick, Melissa, Frances or Bobbi.
For Irish audiences, it will of course be something of a private thrill to see the setting of one’s own wandering playing out on a large screen, but even more so to watch the characters so comfortably inhabit it. This setting so quickly becomes theirs and not yours! As the characters splash about in the freezing Seapoint sea, gasping and laughing, or as Oliver shuffles boredly through the turnstiles at Berkeley library, you begin to forget you yourself have done the same. Go tobann, Dublin is cinematic.
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