The tasteful TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller novel of the same name is a work of art in itself. It is one of the few adaptations which sticks to and is quite true to the book itself. BBC-backed, twelve-part series, set in the fictional town of Carricklea and the city of Dublin. The protagonists – Marianne & Connell, cross paths in the last year of their Irish high school in Carricklea. At school, he’s working class, popular, sporty, and part of the herd. Meanwhile, she’s a social outcast who snaps at teachers and lives in a big house with a cold family like a heroine from a gothic film. They are both immensely private and curious about the world. The series depicts a smoldering chemistry between the two, exploring the different facets of adult relationships and intimacy.
Unlike many other shows from the same genre, the drama and conflict, in Normal People, stem from within. Trivial and mundane, often overlooked themes like self-worth, trauma, and miscommunication are what take center stage as the protagonists hunt for their “normal.” Rooney’s characters are built in the foreground, standing bold against a backdrop of capitalism, racial and societal politics, class, and judgment. The plot pushes you to mercifully love the turns of the story and the characters then.
The series is directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and Lucy Van Lonkhuyzen is the production designer. She had aimed to create a sense of realism on her sets, to keep in line with the very real and bare plot itself. Right from the color palette used for each scene, to depict the mood and dynamic, the props were well thought of. It is also shot at some of the most captivating locations and sets. These locations add a touch of realism to the sets.
The set design played a huge role in demonstrating the various contrasts throughout the series. It also wraps well to showcase the cultural nuances through Germany, Europe and Italy. It is well backed by the cinematography, costumes and dialogue delivery.
Marriane Sheridan, for example, came from a wealthy yet turbulent background. The Sheridan house, therefore, was tasteful, with muted colors, deep blues, and greys. Marianne is portrayed to be bullied and alone in school. The sets of the school itself have been cautiously designed. It was made to look cold and uninviting with shades of steel grey and blue. Even the location of the house, as scouted by location manager – Eoin Holohan, was a large country estate, in grasslands, away from the hustle of the town.
A set goes a long way in contextualizing the background of the protagonist and the story. It immediately orients the viewer to the time in the life of the protagonists. Both Marianne and Connell moved to Trinity, Dublin for higher education. The plot flips over, in Dublin. Marianne gains a circle of hip and wealthy friends, and Connell is the one who increasingly feels uncomfortable and a misfit. A large chunk of the twelve parts is set in Dublin, it brings about the authenticity and realism of the plot. The pad is a typical Gregorian Irish apartment, on broad roads, with many other red brick homes. Marianne’s student residence has been designed to portray the character’s “freedom”, a shabby still chic style. The nuance with which Von Lonkhuyzen has crafted her sets is noteworthy.
A significant part of the plot takes place in summer in North Italy, in a large stone-faced Italian country home, supposedly owned by Marianne’s family. Typical tiled floors, al fresco dining, replete with cherry trees – just as described in the book. The charisma of proper location scouting shines through this part of the series. The space and location chosen for this suspended the viewers somewhere between dream and reality. Softer shadows, lots of green, and bright sun, much to align with the narration of the scene. It successfully evoked a feeling of calm and happiness in both the protagonists’ lives.
These subtle but perfectly synchronized markers of wealth, status, and power dynamics through set and design, are very intriguing. They talk and convey sometimes more than the dialogue delivery itself. It conveys the two different worlds of the characters, beautiful and bleak, and the viewer subconsciously notes that they come from opposite sides of the line. What is also remarkable is while most of the setting is in the Irish countryside, it doesn’t give in to the charms of all things Irish. It has strayed away from usual Irish distractions like pubs and postcard landscapes.
The team behind Normal People set out to make one of the most distinct shows in terms of production design, set design, and locations. They justified the play of art and design with cinematography. The contrasts in moods, relationships, and timelines, have been played out with utmost ease. While from afar it may come off as a regular rom-com, the intricacies are what make it an incredible twelve-part story.