The simplicity of the plot gives away the disastrous overconfidence in stretching the story out to 12 half-hour chapters. College students Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) — spoken-word performers, codependent besties and somewhat uneasy former lovers — are befriended after a show at a bar by a married couple in their 30s, Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and Nick (Joe Alwyn). She’s an accomplished writer (whom Bobbi flirts with); he’s a moderately successful actor (whom Frances kisses). Despite the older woman’s kindness and hospitality, Frances does not think twice before embarking on an affair with Melissa’s husband — a relationship that ends up threatening Frances’s gnarled bond with Bobbi.
Rooney’s novels are famously internal, “Conversations With Friends” perhaps most of all. On the page, Frances’s narration is taken up by her calculations about how open to be with Nick (not very), her musings about their age and class gaps and her faint-inducing pain from an undiagnosed chronic condition. Each of these themes are difficult to dramatize in a visual medium, which may be why most are given short shrift in the adaptation. But there’s nothing to fill up the absences, either. Character stories are told, rather than shown. The result is a frustrating weightlessness to the ups and downs of Frances and Nick’s entanglement, which is supposed to be overwhelming and potentially life-altering because of her youth and her unique vulnerabilities. But it’s mostly just a snooze.
The series reunites Rooney, “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Alice Birch, who collaborated on “Normal People,” the Emmy-nominated miniseries based on the novelist’s 2019 push-and-pull novel. In contrast to that earlier work, which spans about four years when the callow lovers undergo journeys of emotional self-discovery, “Conversations With Friends” takes place over the course of a summer. Despite a postcard-ready trip to Croatia — where, again, Frances and Nick are so awful in their betrayal of the generous Melissa that it’s hard to care about their relationship at all — the stakes feel small and the self-consciously tasteful tonal palette exasperatingly pale
Much of the blame lies in the casting. Oliver brings a great deal of observant naturalism to an underwritten role, but there are few sparks between her and the too-boyish Alwyn. Oliver also can’t quite pull off the entrancing chill that ostensibly defines her character. (At one point, Bobbi asks, “You know how your whole silent thing makes everyone think you’re enigmatic and interesting?” and it wasn’t until that line that I realized we were supposed to find Frances interesting.)
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Kirke can be a magnetic screen presence, but she’s given so little to do here — especially vexing given how much more spiky and furtive her character is in the book — that one’s almost bored on her behalf. But it’s Lane, playing an American with itinerant academic parents, who disappoints most, exuding an effortless bohemian chic but never not sticking out like a sore thumb in her scenes. Her character, too, is barely shaded; even the provocative statements Bobbi lobs like grenades at dinner parties to rile up her friends dela lack the necessary kick. It feels like Lane and Kirke were hired for their charisma, then denied any opportunity to use it lest they overpower the listless central romance.
Among other things, “Conversations With Friends” is supposed to be a snapshot of Frances’ impending adulthood. Unlike her guileless first love with Bobbi, a relationship with a married man — especially one in which adultery is not exactly new to the picture — requires a lot more negotiation, though she is not sure what terms she’s allowed to ask for. Frances is also quickly disillusioned by a publishing internship and anxious about her alcoholic, rapidly declining father, on whom she depends for her living costs. Unfortunately, the series is convinced that its least compelling storyline should be its main attraction. It’s less a translation than a dilution.
Conversations With Friends (12 episodes) is available for streaming Sunday on Hulu.