The BBC/Hulu miniseries Normal People is an emotional gut punch about the difficulties of relationships and hiding our broken parts from those close to us. Both Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, who play classmates that become on-and-off lovers, are a dynamite pairing and while they impress in their own respective right, it would still feel wrong to have one earn recognition and not the other. Because the show is such a dual act, it’s rather fitting for them both to be in Emmy contention.
When it comes to analyzing their individual work, however, we’ll start with Paul Mescal, an incoming Irish actor who seems to love making wearing chain necklaces seem like performance art. On a serious note, Mescal is both an open book and meticulously guarded as Connell, a popular football player who falls for the ostracized Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones). Mescal’s expressive eyes act as the window into Connell’s blatantly kind soul even as Connell keeps those around him at a ribbing distance. It’s clear that Connell has such goodness in him, yet with the way that Mescal speaks low and tilts his head down, there are things he’s willing to keep secret from people like his newfound love.
Connell’s debacle over burying his inner broken parts ends up reaching a breaking point in Episode 10. After his former friend and classmate commits suicide, he sees a therapist and confesses how his friend’s death caused his mental health struggles to resurface. Initially, Connell is presented as calm and collected as he delves into how his struggles began. An early time in his life where it didn’t seem as serious. But as he goes further, delving into how his condition has worsened, his guard becomes shattered. From his small pauses to the way he starts physically trembling, Mescal’s precise body gestures provide familiarity for anyone who has had bouts of depression. Also, the camerawork from DP Suzie Lavile that closes in on Mescal’s face does its job at adding to the scene’s dramatic tension.
Because the series is about a two-person relationship, Mescal’s reticent performance wouldn’t be as effective without Daisy Edgar-Jones as the outspoken Marianne. As opposed to Connell who’s a man of little words, Marianne has a lot on her mind and often uses her sharp-tongued nature as a way of protecting herself from those who either hurt her or she fears may hurt her, putting her at occasional odds with Connell.
Similar to how Episode 10 becomes Mescal’s showcase, Episode 9 is one for Edgar-Jones. As Connell and Marianne go their separate ways with Marianne studying abroad, Marianne becomes drained as she remains far from home. Even if she felt out of place at her own home, her depression still isn’t fleeting. We also see a coin flip take place as the normally vocal Marianne remains silent during her big episode while Connell makes his voice heard on his own.
The performances from both actors feel so lived-in that it doesn’t feel like they’re performing; an acting form that can be taken for granted. Any type of performance that doesn’t involve an ostentatious physical transformation or screaming to the highest balcony can easily be written off as not challenging or groundbreaking. While the Normal People actors may not be mimicking real-life figures, they’re still able to lose themselves in the characters they play.
The Lead Actor in a Limited Series/TV Movie category is pretty sparse which benefits Paul Mescal. Yet, it would still feel wrong to only recognize Mescal and not Daisy Edgar-Jones even if Lead Actress is quite competitive with megawatt star power. After all, the show is called Normal People and not Normal Person.
Matthew St.Clair is a freelance film writer who’s a member of the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA) and thus far, has covered the Sundance, Tribeca, and Toronto International Film Festival. He is also an expert on both queer and genre content. Because he lives and breathes film, he loves to occasionally discuss how The Bling Ring is a misunderstood masterpiece and why God’s Own Country is a gay romance for the ages.