Review: ‘Conversations with Friends’ gets lost in translation

Conversations with Friends © BBC/ Element Pictures

Karissa Korman, lifestyle editor

Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel — and arguably her best — “Conversations with Friends” gets the limited series treatment in Hulu’s adaptation, which premiered on the platform May 15. 

“Conversations with Friends” follows Frances (Alison Oliver) and her ex-girlfriend-turned-argumentative-best-friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane) through their stint as students at Trinity College in Dublin. The duo performs poetry that catches the eye of an older couple, famous writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and her semifamous actor husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), a man of few words — sometimes in an Irish accent, usually in a British one — but of many gratuitous sex scenes.

The four begin a complicated string of affairs. Melissa and Bobbi flirt, kiss and lie across each other’s laps, but Frances and Nick start a secret emotional entanglement that leaves the younger of the pair grappling with her self assurance. True to any Rooney story, “Conversations with Friends” explores the complications among sexuality, age, power, mental health and class, all wrapped up with a distinctly Irish Catholic bow. And while these dynamics are certainly present in the adaptation — be prepared for more than a few opaque lines about capitalism out of Frances, Bobbi and their Trinity peers — the series rushes Frances into her scenes with Nick, all set to cinematic dreamy lens flares that seem to forget the imbalance of their relationship. 

Helmed by directors Lenny Abrahamson, who directed Rooney’s first limited series adaptation and pop culture sensation “Normal People” in 2020, and Leanne Welham, it is difficult for “Conversations with Friends” to escape the shadow of its film-to-screen predecessor. For his sophomore Rooney-verse adaptation, Abrahamson seems to have reused the model that worked for his first: muted colors, sharp cuts between disjointed scenes that echo the brevity of Rooney’s prose, ASMR-like heavy breathing between every other line of dialogue and a torturously drawn-out narrative over several episodes. 

At 12 episodes — for a relatively short novel that spans a summer and a few scattered weeks in the fall — the near six-hour runtime is where “Conversations with Friends” begins to stumble. While this length was suited for “Normal People,” which follows its protagonists and their many ill-fated relationships across high school and college, “Conversations with Friends” is a highly potent affair story that races to its anxious end. For Rooney, an infamously sterile and sparse writer, “Conversations with Friends” is perhaps her most uncontrolled, emotionally obvious narrative — Frances is a grade-A disaster, Bobbi is a hothead and everyone is depressed. But the careful pacing across the adaptation’s 12 episodes loses some of the breakneck anxiety that should come naturally with Frances and Nick’s doomed affair. 

Still, audiences can look to Oliver and find the Frances of the novel — and all of her hangups and agitations — personified. A total newcomer to the screen herself, Oliver delivers a standout performance among a cast of returning film stars and their inside-voice portrayals of the Dublin-based artists. Her Frances is a fish out of water, bumping, more than brushing, shoulders with Melissa, Nick and their circle of friends all a decade and tax bracket above the young poet. At only 21 years old and in desperate need of a dictionary that she could browse to voice her thoughts, Frances swings violently between frenetic and repressed, with enough youth and quiet vigor from Oliver to make her scene partner Alwyn feel ready for the retirement home. 

“Conversations with Friends” cements the cinematic language of a Sally Rooney story. Where her novels share infamous divisive cues (think, no quotation marks) that the reader is in for a signature very dismal, vaguely socialist story, Abrahamson’s adaptations share their performance-driven salacious storytelling. Fans of Rooney will find something — or someone — to love in this latest adaptation of her work, and skeptics will fight to acquire its taste.