Normal People’s treatment of nudity and sex is a gateway to so much more .
By Abby Robinson
Sally Rooney’s hand is felt throughout Normal People, the BBC Three and Hulu co-production based on her critically acclaimed novel of the same name. The characters move and breathe as they do in all 266 pages of the book, the story of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) as captivating on screen as it in Rooney’s written word.
Even if you didn’t know that the Irish writer was an executive producer or co-wrote six episodes – Edgar-Jones described her as “very involved” and “overseeing everything” to Digital Spy and other press – you’d know anyway, because it shows.
Normal People is beautiful. It sweeps you up in its arms, capturing the very essence of the book – that all-encompassing love between Marianne and Connell that transcends the physical, the pair fascinated by the way each thinks and how they see the world.
It’s a series that would, without the perfect casting, have fallen flat. But Edgar-Jones and Mescal are breathtakingly good and there’s no other pair on earth that could have exceeded their performances.
Marianne and Connell meet in the rough and tumble of a typical Irish secondary school and fall into a secret lust affair.
They’re poles apart in the social pecking order. Connell is the star of the school Gaelic football team and is always surrounded by people. Marianne cuts a lonely figure, openly mocked and reviled by her classmates.
But they gravitate towards one another and are unable to escape one another’s orbit, both at school and university beyond that, where Marianne’s social stock rises while Connell’s self-doubt forces him to constantly appraise his place in the hallowed halls of academia.
And although the book ends and there’s no sequel, you know that they couldn’t possibly end.
Marianne and Connell are forever, in each other’s hearts and in ours, too, such is the extraordinary nature of Rooney’s writing.
We’ve seen the love story told before, in myriad forms, from Heloise and Abelard to Ross and Rachel to Fonny and Tish in If Beale Street Could Talk. But Marianne and Connell’s story is bathed in a new glow.
The magnetic attraction between the duo is always present, even when they think that they’re being covert – Connell is later told by one of his school friends that everyone knew what was happening between them.
But it’s most prominent when they’re alone, their clothes tossed on the bedroom floor.
Sex, which begins as something exciting, even taboo between them – Connell won’t tell his peers for fear of what they will say – over time takes on a different role.
It becomes less about sexual appetite or the thrill of having your own dirty little secret, and more about being as close to one another as physically possible, Marianne cracking open Connell’s shell and climbing inside, Connell peering into the depths of Marianne – a gateway to one another.
Normal People’s treatment of sex, and of Marianne and Connell’s naked bodies within that, is exceptionally tender. Very little is hidden or left to the imagination and yet, it’s never crass or gratuitous, directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald mining their mastery of filmmaking to ensure that those moments stay with you for all of the right reasons.
When the pair first have sex, the occasion hums with anticipation, their nervous excitement palpable.
They both want it but Marianne vocalises that desire – “Now can we take our clothes off?” – simultaneously endearing and empowering.
They laugh as they struggle to remove her bra – a minute detail that roots the moment firmly in reality.
It’s Marianne’s first time and Connell asks her if she’s okay, that she’s to tell him to stop if it hurts. As you watch you cannot help but think back to the beauty and thrill and terror of losing your own virginity.
Marianne asks for a condom and there’s that awkward but familiar lull while he slips it out of the wrapper.
She lies there, watching Connell ready himself, waiting for him to move towards her. It allows Marianne a quiet moment of reflection, a moment of stillness before they lose themselves in one another – and while Normal People takes significant care in painting their heady emotions, leaning fully into their romance and the idea of soulmates, it also prioritises the mundane and the practical, such as asking for a condom.
The series gives equal weight to both, which is truthful and, crucially, responsible.
There’s a scene in the final episode that captures the pair after they have had sex, the protagonists well acquainted with each other by that point. They are naked, Marianne sat on the floor with her back propped against the bed, Connell’s head resting on her thighs, his legs outstretched.
The pair are framed like a classical painting.
The decision to lend as much attention to Connell’s naked body as it does to Marianne’s places them on an even playing field and is a stark contrast to what we see typically, where female characters are used as props to titillate.
In that moment, they are both as vulnerable as one another. There’s no power play at work, their equal undress showcasing the level of ease and belonging that they feel around one another – the beating heart of this narrative.
Marianne and Connell confess to one another that despite feeling alone in the world so much of the time, when they are together, that slips away.
“After my first chemistry read with Lenny [Abrahamson], I sat down with him and we were talking about nudity and how I felt, Mescal told Digital Spy and other press.
“I was like, ‘Look, I don’t envisage a version of a series where that isn’t present [for me].’
“I was very keen that male nudity was more present, if not at least equal, because it makes no sense for it not to be the case. If you’re portraying nudity, why would it be any different if you’re going to do it properly?”
He added: “It’s actually about the connection of two people within that.”
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“When Paul and I are in a scene together, and he’s topless and I’m topless, it’s very different for him than it is for me,” said Edgar-Jones added.
“So I wanted it to feel that it was equal, and also that the nudity wasn’t sexualised – which I don’t think it is. I think it’s more often in a non-sexual capacity that they are nude.
“I think that was really important because what Sally writes is a really raw and real relationship, and that’s a really real part of being in a relationship – being able to be comfortable with each other.”
TV and films may have the advantage of visuals, but books are able to drill down into the deep interior of its characters, the hidden centre where emotions burn bright, in a way that can often escape what we watch on screen.
But through sex and those moments of quiet that follow it, Normal People succeeds in doing what the book does so well, capturing that electricity which fizzes between them and beaming it through the pixels on your screen.
Edgar-Jones and Mescal both credit intimacy co-ordinator Ita O’Brien, who also worked on Sex Education and Gentleman Jack, in helping them to create that fine-tuned atmosphere.
“She was in charge of choreographing those scenes in terms of physical beats, which was really brilliant because it meant that Paul and I were able to just concentrate on the acting part of it,” Edgar Jones told Digital Spy and other press.
“Obviously they’re such an integral part of the book that we really wanted to do them justice in the series… They’re really beautiful, and I also think they’re incredibly accurate, especially the first-time scene where Marianne loses her virginity.”
Back in 2018, Florence Pugh (Little Women, Midsommar) spoke to Radio Times about her role in the BBC’s Little Drummer Girl and how nudity was a particular area of difficulty.
“Nudity has never been a problem for me, as long as it’s done beautifully,” she said.
“America is quite scared of bums. And nipples. We had to make sure there were no bums and nipples out.
“There was this one scene where Alex [Skarsgård] and I were under the duvet and supposedly naked. But halfway through the scene, director [Park Chan-wook] cut filming and stated, ‘Florence, you’ve got to hide your nipples more!'”
But in Normal People, nudity isn’t fetishised but used as a way into something honest and true.
“It doesn’t feel at all pornographic,” added Mescal.
“There’s a real narrative drive to all of the intimate scenes throughout the whole series.
“You feel totally safe within it.”