My Brilliant Friend might just be the best TV series you’ve never heard of. Though critically lauded when it launched in 2018, HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 10-million-selling ‘Neaopolitan’ novels didn’t quite have the cut-through of a Chernobyl or Succession. That’s possibly because it’s in a foreign language, but might equally be because, unusually for a TV blockbuster, this tale of two young women’s intense friendship (and sometime rivalry) in postwar Naples is a story of inner lives, where what isn’t said is often more important than what is.
As the second series gets underway, Lila (Gaia Girace) – the stubborn, fiercely clever shoemaker’s daughter – finds herself trapped in a suffocating and violent new marriage: a lonely bird in a gilded cage, showing off her gleaming new bathroom suite while hiding her blackened eye beneath Audrey Hepburn shades. Meanwhile, bookish Elena (Margherita Mazzucco) broods over her own vanishing prospects, threatening to quit school and surrender to a small, disappointing life with the car mechanic boyfriend who resents her dreams and aspirations. She also remains both devoted to, and forever eclipsed by, her glamorous best friend – though Ferrante is playfully ambiguous about which of her heroines the title actually refers to; both, ultimately, are butterflies struggling to escape a life of crushing poverty and ever-shrinking horizons.
The performances, especially from the two leads, are nothing short of astonishing, and director Saviero Costanzo’s world-building – from the dust-blown, colourless streets of Elena and Lila’s tough neighbourhood to the shimmering Amalfi coast – is so entirely convincing, it’s genuinely hard to imagine this was made in the 21st century, with the cast nipping off to check Twitter between takes.
Few concessions are made to anyone struggling to remember the sprawling cast of characters and their interconnected relationships (at least the books come with a handy dramatis personae). But then little about My Brilliant Friend‘s rich, immersive, novelistic storytelling is designed to catch the eye of the casual viewer. A Euro arthouse movie for the box-set generation, it’s a series that demands your total attention – and rewards it in spades.
Eleanor Catton’s adaptation of her Booker Prize-winning 2013 novel plays fast and loose with the source text, placing two of its female supporting characters front and centre in a gothic, fever-dream of a story that’s sort of about the 19th century New Zealand gold-rush, but also sort of about astrology. Eva Green and Himesh Patel bring movie star wattage, but it’s Eve Hewson (daughter of Bono, trivia fans) who steals the show, with a star-making lead performance that’s truly… well, luminous.
EASTENDERS: SECRETS FROM THE SQUARE
It was sobering to see “last in the current series” appear alongside EastEndersin some TV listings mags last week – another small but telling reminder that we live in unusual times. As fans wait for production to resume, they can enjoy this Stacey Dooley-fronted backstage gossip show. Alternatively, you could do a re-watch of EastEnders “season one” – all 6,124 episodes, lasting 127 days (providing you don’t eat, sleep or go to the toilet).
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 25 2020 (c) Waitrose Weekend