Spoiler-Free Review: “Normal People” (2020) starring Daisy Edgar-Jones & Paul Mescal

The series follows Marianne and Connell, from different backgrounds, but the same small town in Ireland, as they weave in and out of each other’s romantic lives. -Synopsis

Marianne (British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Irish actor Paul Mescal) are classmates at a secondary school (high school) in County Sligo on Ireland’s Southern coast. Among her peers at HS, Marianne is regarded as an oddball/loner; she has an abrasive personality and says she cares nothing for social standing. Despite her academic achievements, her family life is unhappy b/c of her dismissive/solicitor (lawyer) mother, Denise, and resentful/older bro, Alan. Marianne’s father is deceased. Connell is a high-achiever also, but popular w/ athletic skills/laid-back attitude. (FYI: The sport they play at school is Gaelic football, a combo of rugby and soccer.) He lives in a humble (yet happy) home w/ his single mother, Lorraine, who works for Denise as a cleaner of their (fancy/spacious) house. There is no father in the picture; it’s obvious that Lorraine had Connell when she was a teen. The focus is Marianne and Connell’s romantic relationship over their last year of HS through college (undergraduate) years.

Normal People is based on the bestselling book by a millennial/Irish author, Sally Rooney, who co-wrote the first 6 eps (out of 12 total eps at less than 30 mins each). The show became hugely popular worldwide (esp. w/ young adults) when it was released in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can watch it now on Hulu. I saw it a few weeks ago, after some of my Twitter gal pals praised it; I’ve been skeptical of shows re: teens/college kids in the past. Wow, was I (pleasantly) surprised; the writing and acting are terrific! Silence is also used effectively at key moments. As I’ve written before, there is nothing like a love story, BUT only when it is done well (NOT cliched or simplistic). I kept thinking- why can’t we (Americans) have smart/sensitive entertainment like this w/ teens/young ppl!?

I hadn’t seen the lead actors before; they had great chemistry together. Mescal (now garnering acclaim for the indie movie Aftersun) will play the lead in the sequel to Gladiator; director Ridley Scott will be filming it after he wraps up Napolean. Connell is (traditionally) masculine, yet also has a sensitive/vulnerable side. Edgar-Jones was the lead in Where the Crawdads Sing (2022), based on a bestselling novel by Delia Owens. Marianne can be tough, mysterious (as in hard to know), yet also quite vulnerable. Check this show out ASAP- you won’t regret it!

[1] Brilliant, heartbreaking viewing experience. Give yourself over to this wonderful story and be ready for a genuine rollercoaster. 

[2] What I liked is that I felt both Marianne and Connell were well-rounded characters that didn’t fall into stereotypes. […]
That it pierced the heart of this wretched old soul speaks volumes to the quality of the series.

[3] These young new faces are truly engaging and they are beautiful to boot. As characters, there are emotions beneath that are really worthwhile to explore. They become more and more fully formed people and that’s the brilliance of this limited series. These are great characters performed by compelling new faces.

[4] It felt almost like reading a book where you envision the characters so vividly, you can almost touch them. The chemistry the two leads have, their acting, the cinematography, are all so well blended together, so seamless, it’s palpable. A melancholy trip worth taking, if only to remind the ones past teenage years how vulnerable and all-engulfing a young love is.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“The Power of the Dog” (2021) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, & Kodi Smit-McPhee

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from the movie (now streaming on Netflix).

Peter: When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?

In 1925 in Montana, wealthy rancher, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), inspires fear and awe in those around him. His younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries a hard-working widow- Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst)- who has a sensitive young adult son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Resenting the changes in his home, Phil acts cruel to both Rose and Peter (when he comes home from college in the Summer). Phil tells Rose he thinks she’s a gold-digger. He bullies Peter (effeminate and introverted), and the cowhands follow his lead. After some time, Phil takes Peter under his wing, showing him the ways of the ranch.

George (to Rose): I just want to say… how nice it is not to be alone.

Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for The Piano (1993); she was only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. I haven’t seen that film in many years, but I did like it. I had also previously watched In the Cut (2003) and blogged re: S1 of Campion’s TV show (Top of the Lake). The ranch house and cattle barn (aged to reflect the 1920s) were constructed on location. Filming began in January 2020; due to the COVID pandemic, it was halted until late June. Many critics have pointed out that this film is Campion’s 1st w/ a lead male character. The original book was written in 1967 by an American author (Thomas Savage) who was known for Westerns; he was a closeted gay man who married and had children.

Phil Burbank: Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.

This is a departure for Cumberbatch; I thought he did quite well portraying a macho cowboy (who is hiding his true self). Though Plemons and Dunst are engaged and have two young sons, they have a awkward (yet promising) chemistry in their early scenes. George and Rose are two lonely people who just decided NOT to be alone anymore; I wanted to see more of them (esp. Rose after she becomes alcoholic). Smit-McPhee (an Aussie actor, 25 y.o.) is getting a LOT of notice; he could be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He has an other-worldly look and creates an unique character; he and Cumberbatch share a few tense scenes. I thought much more would happen between them (such as violence), BUT this film subverts expectations. What exactly happened btwn the younger Phil and his older/beloved mentor Bronco Henry? Phil idolizes Bronco Henry (20 yrs. after his death); he’s held up as the ideal cowboy/man.

As one critic said, the tone of this movie is like than in The Beguiled. The pacing is V slow, which many viewers (esp. on Twitter) joked about. The score for this film is rather unnerving; I thought it was overmuch in some scenes. Phil whistles a song which Rose can’t play well; she’d gotten a grand piano from George (who wants them to mix more w/ society). Phil then plays the same song on his banjo, taunting Rose further. Though some have called the ending “ambiguous,” I knew Peter weaponized the anthrax (which had infected the dead cow he found on the road), then planned the death of Phil. If you have some time and a LOT of patience, then check this film out.

[1] It’s a slow burn especially in the first half. While I find these characters compelling, I do wish to have more reasons for these characters. I need their history.

[2] Campion lets her camera linger on the outward expressions of inner struggle and the vast landscape, which promises to bury one’s secrets, but doesn’t.

[3] “The Power of the Dog” reinforces what I already knew – male macho posturing and bullying is usually a desperate attempt to disguise feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. Though set in 1923, the film is so clearly about now…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews