The Reality of 'Normal People': an Analysis of How Reality is Constructed in 'Normal People', the Television Series.

Alice Thacker


Normal People is a twelve-part drama which is based on the novel, by Sally Rooney, by the same name. The storyline follows the on-again, off-again love story of the two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, as they navigate their lives from secondary school to university. Although the storyline sounds like the cliché of many romantic dramas, Normal People has received acclaim for pioneering a new realism (Janney, 2018). It is this realism and how this realism was constructed that I intend to investigate. Realism is constructed in Normal People, the television series, through its inclusion of neorealist characteristics, a variety of filming techniques and the focus that is placed on stories which exist within our world. 

Warning: this essay includes spoilers.


The Storyline

The audience is introduced to Marianne and Connell when they live and attend secondary school in the small fictional town of Carricklea, in County Sligo in the west of Ireland. Connell Waldron, played by Paul Mescal, is an attractive and popular student and the school’s sports star. Connell is also quiet and insecure with budding anxiety issues. Marianne Sheridan, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, is an intelligent and quick-witted outcast at school who is from a wealthy family. Connell’s mother cleans the mansion in which Marianne lives with her mother and brother, causing their disparity in social stations to form an underlying hum of tension in their relationship. Marianne and Connell share a high level of intelligence and a deeply private attitude along with an inability to communicate at critical moments, causing heart-breaking misunderstandings (Russell, 2020).

Connell and Marianne strike up a relationship as they start having sex; a relationship which they both agree not to tell anyone else about. Connell fears losing his friends for dating the school outcast, whilst Marianne has no friends to tell anyway: “Like I’d talk to anyone at school,” Marianne states. However, Marianne’s attitude towards the original agreement changes as they both develop feelings towards each other. Connell invites someone else to the school dance and Marianne is crushed. Marianne withdraws from school and cuts all contact with Connell. Connell is racked with guilt as he is confronted by his mother for hurting Marianne and realises that he in fact loves Marianne (Russell 2020).

Marianne and Connell both go on to study at Trinity College Dublin where their roles in the social strata are reversed: Marianne is the popular student, with friends who are artsy and cosmopolitan; Connell finds himself alone as he struggles to make friends in the unfamiliar environment. However, once again Marianne and Connell are brought together by the chemistry of first love. The pattern of separation followed by their chemistry propelling them back together again recurs in different forms over the twelve episodes (Russell, 2020).


Neorealist characteristics

In Wilson’s (2014) “The Bigger the Lie, the More They Believe”: Cinematic Realism and the Anxiety of Representation in David Simon’s ‘The Wire’, Wilson explains how the shift of film production to reflect the Italian Neorealist movement saw a development towards using a more realistic form of cinematic representation. Neorealism is often thought of as a culturally and historically-specific manifestation of displaying ontological accuracy of the physical world: displaying the aesthetic quality of ‘realism’ (Shiel, 2006, 1). Characteristics of this style in cinema included location filming, a non-interventionalist approach to film-directing, and employing non-professional actors in order to emphasise a film’s authenticity (Shiel, 2006, 2). The realism that is claimed to exist within Normal People is arguably influenced by characteristics of neorealism because scenes were shot on location, non-famous actors featured in the series, and three central members of the team creating the series had lived knowledge of events within the series. 

In filming Normal People, the neorealist proclivities are evident in the emphasis that was placed on filming on location. The principal photography took place on location in Tubbercurry, a real town in County Sligo, and in Dublin (Miner, 2019). Filming of Tubbercurry created the fictional town in County Sligo of Carricklea which Marianne and Connell came from (Galvin, 2019). Sligo and Dublin were the two main locations in which the story unfolded so conducting the principal photography in these locations indicates a desire to retain the authenticity of the geographical and social milieus. The cinematography maintained the realism of the story taking place in Sligo, Ireland as the beach scenes were also filmed on location at Streedagh Beach in northwest Sligo (Sampson, 2020). The neorealist ideal of non-interventionalist approach to film-directing can be seen in the filming that took place on location at Trinity College Dublin because students who actually attend the university were included as extras in the scenes (Khan, 2019). The scenes which took place abroad in Northern Italy and Sweden were also filmed on location suggesting a wish to preserve the authenticity of the environments in the filming (Medd, n.d.). 

The choice to cast actors who are not particularly famous on-screen signifies the influence of the neorealist movement. Normal People was Mescal’s on-screen debut, as he had previously worked in theatre, introducing to him to an audience largely unfamiliar to him (Armstrong, 2020). Edgar-Jones had more experience than Mescal on-screen, but again a limited amount as she has only appeared in on-screen roles since 2016 (Fitch Little, 2020). The audience having not being given the distraction of the faces of famous actors, prevents them from distancing themselves from the series as it gives them the impression that they are watching real people, not just characters (Wilson, 2014, 64). Beyond the desire to preserve authenticity in the cinematography of the series, the casting of non-famous actors suggests an aspiration to strive for authenticity in performance. This aspiration is emphasised in the choice of Mescal playing Connell due to his character fitting aspects of his actual persona. Mescal was born in a small Irish town (Maynooth) and attended Trinity College Dublin two aspects central to the characterisation of Connell (National Academy of Dramatic Art, n.d.). Mescal also played under-21 Gaelic football, whilst Connell features as his secondary school’s star Gaelic football player (Ward, 2017). In an interview with The Independent, Mescal was asked as to whether he related to the character of Connell in his being a country boy from a small town trying to fit in with the rich students at Trinity College. Mescal responded by saying, “Definitely on a scale. Going into something I wasn't necessarily sure that I was good at. Moving from a place where you're respected and seem to be understood. It's a big departure to go to a place where your identity's slightly in question. It takes adjusting to." (Armstrong, 2020). Mescal being casted to play Connell gives the character a sense of realism because Mescal is able to draw on his own personal lived experiences to portray the similar experiences of the character.

The importance of the makers of Normal People having lived experience is discussed by Wilson (2014) as he believes it to be a claim for realism. Mescal shared several characteristics with the role he played, but so did one of the co-screenwriters and the director. Sally Rooney, the author of the novel Normal People and one of the co-screenwriters of the television series, shares multiple characteristics with the two protagonists. Rooney, like Mescal, grew up in “a run-of-the-mill small town in the west of Ireland” (Castlebar) and attended Trinity College Dublin (Cocozza, 2017). This background is shared with both Connell and Marianne. Although Normal People is not based on Rooney’s life, there are many similarities between her life and those of her characters: Rooney did her Bachelor’s in English Literature, like Connell (Clark, 2018). Rooney had stories accepted by literary magazines, as did Connell (Clark, 2018). At Trinity College, Rooney won a “very lucrative” scholarship, as did both Connell and Marianne (Cocozza, 2017). Rooney did not particularly enjoy her secondary school years, nor did Marianne (Agius, 2020). In the first episode of the series, Marianne openly questions the authority of her teacher when he sends her to the principal’s office for looking out of the window: Marianne says, “Yeah, I might go there, or I might just head home. It’s not really your business what I do, is it?” (Abrahamson & Macdonald, 2020). This is an attitude arguably reflected in Rooney’s life as she stated: “I don’t respond to authority very well. I fundamentally don’t agree with accepting authority that you haven’t agreed to in some way.” (Agius, 2020). The executive producer and co-director of Normal People, Lenny Abrahamson, also shares similarities with the protagonists. Abrahamson was born in Dublin and, again like Mescal and Rooney, attended Trinity College Dublin (Brady, 2016). Abrahamson also won the lucrative scholarship at Trinity like Rooney, and the two protagonists (Brady, 2016). The lived experience that Mescal had would have enabled him to bring an authenticity to his performance, whilst the lived experience of Rooney and Abrahamson would have enabled the aesthetic of truth to be reflected in script and the direction of the series.   


Filming Techniques

In Benjamin’s (1968) work entitled, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin discusses the effect that technological developments have had within the sphere of art. Benjamin claims that the characteristics of film enables the representation of environment and in so doing so deepens apperception. Behaviour presented in a film is more readily analysed than it would be in its presentation on stage or in a painting because film is able to focus on a precise statement of the situation. Film does this through using different techniques: for example, close-up shots which expand space, and slow-motion filming which extends movement. Film has the ability to “reveal entirely new structural formations of the subject” (Benjamin, 1968, 227). In cutting into reality in this way, Benjamin likens the cameraman to a surgeon. The surgeon significantly reduces the distance between themselves and the patient as they cut directly into their body; the cameraman penetrates reality and assembles fragments to reproduce a new structure of reality which is left free of technological evidence. Deepening the apperception means that the audience closely investigates the world in which we live from the position of the camera: Benjamin claims that the audience is not offered a representation of reality, but they are instead offered an analysis of reality.

The direction in which Abrahamson took Normal People, reflects Benjamin’s explanation of how technological developments have impacted the sphere of art. The filming of Normal People plays with the distance of the audience to the reality by using different techniques. With the use of some angles, the audience is unable to clearly see the emotions on the characters’ faces, causing the audience to physically move themselves in an attempt to understand the drama (Lloyd, 2020). In other shots, the cinematography adopts an observational quality, “almost like documentary filming”, in which the audience just sits back and observes the events unfold (Lloyd, 2020). In adjusting the different angles from which a scene, or sections of scene, are filmed fragments of reality are assembled in order to produce the result: a reconstructed reality which the audience watches. Using different angles focuses the audience’s attention on to different aspects of the drama, and forces them to miss others, to produce the story the director desires. Forcing the audience to understand the drama from the perspective of the camera is evident in Normal People when one scene, in episode seven, is told from the perspective of Connell first and later from Marianne view (Abrahamson & Macdonald, 2020). It is a scene which demonstrates one of the most heart-breaking misunderstandings that occur within their relationship which as a result of both Marianne’s and Connell’s inability to communicate in critical situations. In the episode, Connell is unable to afford the rent of his room in Dublin and so has to return to Carricklea for the summer. Connell was hoping to stay with Marianne during the summer, but Marianne misunderstands what Connell is saying when he says that he cannot afford his rent and interprets it as him breaking-up with her. By filming the same scene twice but from two different perspectives the audience is enabled to analyse the reality and understand what the characters both felt and their intent behind the interaction, and how that resulted in a misunderstanding. It draws the audience’s attention to the individual quality of a reality and the disparity that can exist between different people’s perception of reality. 

Film pieces together fragments of reality which gives the reality a new structural formation. Colour palette, choice of camera, and sound all greatly impact how the audience analyses reality. An element which significantly alters the analysis of reality is the choice of colour palette and as it impacts the atmosphere of the shot. The cinematographers of Normal People, Suzie Lavelle and Kate McCullough, along with the director, Abrahamson, were inspired by the work of photographer Nan Goldin whose images feature a “rich colour palette and incidental nakedness” (Stanford, 2020). In scenes which explored the sexual relationship between Marianne and Connell, dusky lighting was chosen because it would “evoke a wistful sense of natural intimacy.” (Kang, 2020). Handheld cameras in these scenes added to this effect of “a wistful sense of natural intimacy” because it reduced the distance of the cameraman to reality, consequentially bringing the audience closer to the reality (Kang, 2020). Many of the episodes of Normal People begins with some form of diegetic sound, such as breathing, body movement or traffic (O’Neill, 2020). The diegetic sound is often heard prior to anything being presented on screen, absorbing the audience immediately into the scene. Giving the sound primacy in these scenes, cuts deeply into reality as the distance between the audience and reality is diminished even further as their senses are used to draw them into the scene. Abrahamson’s choices of colour palette, camera and sound all work to create a palpable sense of intimacy between Marianne and Connell in their scenes together (O’Neill, 2020). 

The palpable sense of intimacy is especially evident in the scenes of Marianne and Connell having sex because they are “languid and slowly edited”; (O’Neill, 2020) the scenes are not rushed or gratuitous they are “slow-paced, careful and…well real.” (Kelly, 2020). The influence of Nan Goldin’s colour palette and incidental nudity is evident in the way in which the protagonists’ full-frontal nudity is displayed in “moments of quiet and repose” (Stanford, 2020). The protagonists’ nudity does not seem to be sexualised or used to express a sense of voyeurism; their nudity is instead an expression of their intimacy and shared vulnerability. The choice not to follow the route of most shows in portraying sex which is normally initiated with “a loaded pause, followed by a passionate clinch, the hitch of a skirt and three thrusts culminating in simultaneous orgasms” prevents the relationship between Marianne and Connell from being gratuitous (Kelly, 2020). Instead, the choice of slowing the pace of the editing of these scenes increased the perceived intimacy in the relationship, as one viewer tweeted: “the sex scenes in #normalpeople make me squirm and it’s not because they’re cringy but instead because they’re so incredibly intimate that I feel like I’m intruding and need to look away.” (Sullivan, 2020). The choice to depict the sexual relationship between Marianne and Connell in this way is arguably reflective of realism in literature as it sought to present how reality can be found in everyday experience. Their sexual relationship is not sensationalised, instead it portrays the idea of ‘tranche de vie’, that the audience is just watching a day in the life of the characters (Van der Beek, 2020). The filming in these scenes cuts into the reality to such a degrees that audience members felt as if they were observing a “real relationship” (Weinstein, 2020). This is reinforced by the emphasis that is placed on the topics of consent and safe sex. In many on-screen sex scenes, they are initiated by a “loaded pause” and there is rarely a pause later to ensure consent or to discuss the use of birth control. In episode two, Connell and Marianne are going to have sex and Connell tells Marianne, who has never had sex before, that they can stop at any time: “If you want me to stop or anything, we can obviously stop. If it hurts of anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward.” (Abrahamson & Macdonald, 2020).  This line is subtle as it follows what should be part of the process of having sex, but also works to act as an example of how consent can be discussed. The choice to include this line regarding consent presents the audience with an analysis of reality as it focuses on this precise statement of the situation and its importance in a sexual relationship. Consent being discussed cuts into reality as it is an aspect commonly left out of gratuitous and unrealistic sex scenes.


Stories that exist within our World

Philosophical realism is based on two claims: firstly, a claim about existence; and secondly, a claim about independence (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2002). The claim regarding existence, is the claim that things within the world and their properties simply exist. For example, rocks exist, and rocks that are made of granite exist. The claim regarding independence, is the claim that the existence of things is not dependent upon humanity. For example, the existence of rocks and their being made of granite is not dependent upon human action, thought or speech. Philosophical realism stands in stark contrast to philosophical idealism which claims that humans creates the world within their minds, instead of the world existing, and existing independently to them (Van der Beek, 2020). 

Normal People depicts stories which already exist within our world, but it does not depict stories which are independent from humans. Nevertheless, the subscription of Normal People to the claim of existence is arguably why the series felt real to many of its audience. The narrative of Normal People focuses predominantly on the relationship between Marianne and Connell, but there is also a subtle emphasis on what Rooney calls ‘externalities’ which greatly impact their relationship (Clark, 2018). The form of relationship that Marianne and Connell had is one which exists in the world already: “We all love someone, have all had to make difficult decisions about love.” (O’Neill, 2020). And the ‘externalities’ which impact their relationship also exist within the world: mental illness, domestic abuse, and economic crises which exasperate class divisions.

Normal People takes Marianne and Connell’s relationship, the relationship borne out of first love, seriously. The fact that first love is taken seriously is partially why the series is so compelling: “It is well aware that those relationships leave permanent marks.” (Chaney, 2020). The relationship between Marianne and Connell is one which many people have experienced a version of, with its miscommunication in critical moments, stupid blunders, and breathless rendezvous. Their relationship is the “most universal aspect of this story” (O’Neill, 2020). The characterisation of Marianne and Connell as both being “very complicated, flawed, and sometimes quite unlikeable”, as described by Edgar-Jones, is important in the claim about existence of this form of relationship (Weisenstein, 2020). Marianne and Connell are realistic characters in that they “make mistakes and can be ugly sometimes”; they are not put on a pedestal; they are very human (Weisenstein, 2020). Humans exist like this, they are flawed, as are their relationships, as are many first loves. Marianne and Connell needed to be flawed because perfect humans would automatically have a perfect relationship. Perfect humans and perfect relationships do not exist so the flaws that are portrayed are essential to the claim about existence. 

The ‘externalities’ which cast a shadow over the narrative include the domestic violence in Marianne’s family, her wealth and Connell’s lack of wealth, and the atmosphere of post-economic-crash Ireland (Clark, 2018). Early on in the series, Marianne experiences sexual harassment and assault, which introduces the cloud of suffering under which Marianne lives. In episode two, Marianne’s classmate sexually harasses her as he calls her “an ugly flat-chested bitch” (Abrahamson & Macdonald, 2020). In episode three, in a nightclub when Marianne still attends school, she is sexually assaulted as a man grabs her breasts. Marianne confides in Connell, as she tells him that her deceased father used to assault her mother, causing there to be a constant threat and anticipation of domestic violence hanging over her house. Marianne’s volatile brother spits on her, pours dishwater over her head, and later throws a beer bottle at her before preceding to hit her. Domestic violence is a horrific reality for many people: in the year ending March 2019, in the UK an estimated 2.4 million adults suffered from domestic violence (Office for National Statistics, 2019). The depiction of domestic violence in Normal People, portrays a story which already exists within the world: claiming realism of a horrific form.

The subject of mental illness is tackled in episode ten, as Connell struggles to come to terms with the suicide of one of his friends. Mescal portrays Connell’s struggles with depression unflinchingly as he details his suffering to a counsellor in terms rarely presented on-screen (O’Neill, 2020). Normal People does not subscribe to the typical Hollywood trope of reducing depression to the character remaining in bed constantly. Instead, Connell continues to function, in that he continues to go to his classes and work, but his suffering becomes evident in his disengagement from the world, panic attacks, and complete loss of energy (Dray, n.d.). Mescal shared with The Independent that “Three people killed themselves at my school. So it’s not fictional to me, it’s real.” (Dray, n.d.). Men suffering with mental illness is, again, a problem that exists within our world: suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, (Dray, n.d.) with 80-90% of people who commit suicide suffering from mental illnesses (MHFA England, 2020). Normal People’s representation of mental illness, again, tells a story which already exists in our world: claiming realism of a painful form.

The economic disparities that were illustrated between Marianne and Connell greatly impacted their social and educational lives. Rooney stated: “It would have been really difficult for me to write about young people leaving home in the west of Ireland, moving to college, and not confronting the economic disparities that were emerging at that time, like the stripping back of protections for people from working-class backgrounds who were going to college. I don’t think I would have been able to really explore what was going on in those characters’ interior lives without being sensitive to the changes that were happening outside.” (Clark, 2018). After the economic crash, large numbers of young people moved from rural areas to urban centres for educational and employment opportunities. When these young people arrived in the cities they are faced with high rents and poor accommodation. Dublin is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, meaning that the housing crisis there was particularly severe, an aspect as seen in Connell’s move to Dublin for university. In episode six, Connell is unable to work in the summer because the restaurant in which he works is closing for refurbishment. As a result, Connell is unable to afford his rent for that summer, forcing him to return to Sligo. The economic disparity between the two protagonists is directly addressed in episode eight when Connell stays with Marianne in her family’s Italian villa. Connell and Marianne had both recently won scholarships from Trinity College Dublin and Connell reflects on how his sudden financial increase had greatly impacted his life: “I feel like the scholarship has made everything seem possible.” (Abrahamson & Macdonald, 2020). Marianne explains how her financial stability had affected her life: “I don’t actually think about it that much, the financial side. […] Sorry, that was an ignorant thing to say. Maybe I should think about it more.” (Abrahamson & Macdonald, 2020). The economic disparity between Marianne and Connell is an underlying tension in their relationship because Connell’s lack of wealth greatly impacted the educational and social opportunities he was able to access; whereas as Marianne stated, for her it was not something she thought about because she did not suffer from her financial position placing restraints on her educational or social life. The economic crash hit in 2008, the acknowledgement of the crash and its effects, in Normal People, subscribes to the claim of existence: claiming realism of an economic foundation.   



Reality is constructed in the television series, Normal People, through neorealist characteristics, filming techniques and the inclusion of stories which exist within our world. The majority of the filming taking place on location, and the employment of non-famous actors enabled the series to preserve the authenticity of the environment and performance. Rooney, Abrahamson and Mescal all having lived experience of events in the series, enabled a preservation of the aesthetic of truth to permeate all areas of the series: from script to direction to performance. The use of filming techniques, including different angles, colour palette and diegetic sound, all worked to piece together fragments of reality to present the audience with a new structure of reality free from the trace of the use of technology. The slow-editing and lack of sensationalising the sex scenes, and the placement of focus on sexual consent and safety, portrayed the aesthetic of ‘tranche de vie’. The presentation of Marianne and Connell as flawed characters and having a flawed relationship made a claim about existence, as versions of their relationship exist within the world. This claim about existence, and its extension to the claim of realism, was facilitated through the tackling of stories which exist in our world, such as mental illness, domestic abuse, and economic crises and their effects. Normal People's ability to capture reality in this way and to this degree of accuracy gives it a deeply nostalgic feeling as it reflect elements of our own personal lives. 



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