After the stellar Normal People in 2017, it’s no surprise that Hulu decided to have the same team come back to work on Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends. Much like Normal People, Conversations with Friends explores the dynamics that govern modern relationships, in all its messy, chaotic glory. In this first episode, we’re introduced to Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane). The pair are good friends, they’ve even dated before, which isn’t explicitly mentioned but we’re given hints via certain framing choices and story points – like the possibility of a kiss that lingers in the air, or Bobbi’s intimate knowledge of Frances’ menstrual cycle.
They perform poetry slams together all over Dublin, and it’s at one of these performances that they meet Melissa (Jemima Kirke), who’s a writer. Bobbi’s instantly taken with her, and is eager to make her acquaintance, while Frances is merely along for the ride.
The great thing about Conversations with Friends is that everything feels so natural and organic. We’re shown a brief moment of Bobbi introducing herself to Melissa and chatting with her, and the next scene is the three of them going for a swim. Obviously something has happened in between, but the show doesn’t feel compelled to show us everything, mainly dragging us through moments of significance. There isn’t a sense of how much time has passed, yet it doesn’t really matter. What matters are these conversations and gradual building of relationships.
Melissa then introduces Bobbi and Frances to her husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), who’s an actor, and the four sit down to break bread together. Despite the fact that they’re married, Melissa and Nick feel distant from each other. They barely interact and seem more dutiful than affectionate; Melissa also makes a weird comment about Nick’s parents being the only people they know to be happily married. Is this in some way suggesting that she and Nick are not happily married? Like Frances says, we’re not sure what happens behind closed doors, and what exactly it is that keeps Nick and Melissa together, or even what brought them together in the first place.
While Bobbi and Melissa leave the table for a smoke, this means Frances and Nick are awkwardly left to their own devices. Their conversation is probably the highlight of the episode. You can’t help but marvel at how well the scene is framed, how authentic it feels. Nick and Frances are practically strangers at this point, trying to grasp at some straws of commonality so that they’re not just sitting in silence, but as the conversation goes on, we get to see a bit more of Nick’s personality, and how witty he actually is. He was almost a non-entity in the table conversation between the four of them just moments before, but suddenly here, with Frances, he’s opening up a little bit more.
He tells her about the play he’s in – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams. Considering the themes of the play, and the fact that Nick plays a character in an unhappy marriage, who had a friendship that possessed a romantic undercurrent, it’s quite a clever way to reflect the nature of Nick’s relationship with Melissa, and the dangerous game that he and Frances are starting by forming a friendship with each other. Oliver’s Frances is all jittery school girl and a jumble of nerves, a total contrast to the know-it-all she usually is, much like how someone would behave on a first date. Alwyn plays Nick as more reserved, less outwardly nervous, but the way he answers, with the pauses and various inflections, and does a first rate job of making it all feel like a real conversation.
There’s something very assured about him, and he exudes a relaxed and confident manner, as if he’s savoring each morsel of their conversation, with the anticipation of more to come. I’ve seen Alwyn in a few movies, like The Favorite and The Last Letter from Your Lover, and each character he takes on is remarkably different. He completely sinks himself into each role, and you completely believe that he is whoever he’s playing at the moment.
At only 30 minutes per episode, all Episode 1 offers is a taste, and not quite a full meal. Still, there’s enough compelling content present that the viewer will surely chase down the second episode to see what unfurls between these two groups of people.
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This first episode paints these four characters in broad strokes, and while we don't know each of them intimately as yet, we can understand why they would be drawn to each other.
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