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Karla Peterson: Hulu's adaptation of Sally Rooney's 'Conversation With Friends' leaves many things unsaid

Karla Peterson, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

In Hulu's new adaption of Sally Rooney's 2017 novel "Conversations with Friends," one look on actress Alison Oliver's face is worth many flashing paragraphs of Rooney's kaleidoscopic prose.

And it's a good thing, too. Because as Hulu attempts to transform Rooney's word-drunk novel into 12 half-hour episodes of streaming television, Oliver and her young, expressive face have a lot of heavy lifting to do.

Cast just after graduating from the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art in Dublin, Oliver plays Frances, a student at Trinity College who becomes part of a complicated four-way relationship involving Frances' former girlfriend and current best friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane, "American Honey"), and a sophisticated, arty older couple — a writer and photographer named Melissa (Jemima Kirke of "Girls"), and her actor-husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn, "The Souvenir: Part II").

In the novel, everyone is always, always talking. Conversations about art and politics and money start in pubs and bookstores and continue at Melissa and Nick's chicly grown-up house or Frances' college-student flat, before spilling into text messages and emails that usually end up being the topic of even more discussion.

Then there are the internal debriefings that make up Frances' narration, which capture the febrile workings of the young-woman brain in all their relentless, vulnerable glory. Because no one can wound a smart young woman as effectively as she can wound herself.

"My ego has always been an issue," Frances says early on in the book. "I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was."

 

Ouch.

There is not nearly as much talk in the Hulu version, but as we watch Frances navigate relationships that are all-consuming (and all-confusing) in different ways, Oliver speaks volumes, even as Frances is technically doing nothing more than staring out of a train window.

Fear. Desire. Doubt. Love. More fear. It all ripples across Oliver's expressive, wide-open face. It doesn't entirely make up for the loss of all those witty words Rooney has her characters exchanging over wine, cigarettes and subtext, but it will make you very invested in Frances and her struggles to make sense of an affair that ends up blindsiding her.

The action begins just as Frances and Bobbi are starting a summer of half-hearted working and full-on socializing before their last year in college. The observant, awkward Frances is a writer, and she and the supremely confident Bobbi perform Frances' barbed, feminist poems as a duo at coffeehouses and pubs.

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©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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