HBO’s series My Brilliant Friend – adapted from the Novel of the same name, and directed by Saverio Costanza and is a faithful retelling of Elena Elena Ferrante’s much-loved novels.
Costanza’s adaption proves to be a touching portrayal of friendship, violence and hope in mid-twentieth century Naples. As Lila (Ludovica Nast) and Lenù’s (Elisa Del Genio) bond and trust grow and evolves, in the hour of the first episode, audiences are bound to fall in love with the characters throughout My Brilliant Friend.
The first episode begins with a modern-day Elena (Lenú) receiving a phone call which relays the information that Lila has erased herself from family photos, cleared out all of her belongings and disappeared. This is met with a cold and unemotional reaction from Elena who then, immediately begins to type the chronicle of her life and friendship with Lila, we are then transported back to Italy, and exposed to an honest and intimate display of love, corruption, abuse and hope – all set against the backdrop of Lila and Lenú’s hometown; a small village on the outskirts of Naples.
Attracted by their matching and unflinching curiosity to discover and learn, in a world that seems dead set on not allowing them to do just that. Lila and Lenú strike up a relationship that is solidified by Lenú seeking and giving Lila the perfect rock to throw at the boys from their school, during an altercation that follows the students being put head-to-head in a competition of intellect.
As the series continues to explore the girls’ relationship and lives – as well as their trust in one another – the second episode opens with the two girls demanding their dolls back – from the previously, almost mythical Don Achilles; the man who controls and terrifies their village – in a display of adorable, momentary bravery. But when Achilles gives them money rather than the dolls they lost they decide to buy a copy of Little Women so they can study the classic work of literature with the end goal of writing their own masterpiece. Lila, the poorer and arguably smarter of the pair has an appetite for education that Lenu both admires and tries to compete with.
As the episode shifts to a more melancholic tone, the unfair world in which the girls live, is made apparent. Despite Lila and Lenú being branded the two most intelligent girls in their village, it’s made clear to the characters, as well as the viewers, that education and freedom from the confines of being a housewife are privileges granted to only a few girls.
To rely on child actors to single-handedly hold up such a slow-burning and emotional programme was always going to be a risk, however, Nast and Del Genio do not disappoint, delivering remarkably good performances throughout, especially considering the young age at which they have been thrown into such complex acting rolls. This, paired with the great writing (Elena Ferrante, herself, has been named as one of four writers for the programme) definitely makes for an understated masterpiece of love, strength and honesty. Subtitled in a such a specific dialect of Italian that even those watching in Rome would be reliant on the subtitles, it is both brave and smart of HBO to stay so faithful to the beloved text. The recreation of the girls’ worn neighbourhood is perfect and helps to give what could be a warm and loving story its harsh edge. Despite the focus on friendship and the two adorable girls at the centre, this isn’t a light and fluffy period piece, it’s a gritty, often violent and exquisite depiction of a Naples struggling to rebuild after a world and of two young children struggling in a world that places limits on them at every turn.
By the third episode, the girls are sixteen and their economic differences are more pronounced than before. Lenu is allowed to flourish and continue with her education whilst Lila is forced to help her tyrant of a father and the brother she worships in the family shoemaking business. It’s clear that the girls could drift apart, and whilst Lenu struggles in exams and Lila begins to put her brilliant mind to use on a new pair of shoes, their friendship is stronger than the pair had initially thought.
My Brilliant Friend is both, an emotionally and visually melancholic and unflinchingly honest piece of television. Along with the unchanging setting and incredible acting of Nast and Del Genio, audiences will be left with a replicated sense of claustrophobia and sorrow as the girls manoeuvre their way through the daily troubles of the male orientated and macabre events of their village and subsequently, their own lives. It stands side by side with HBO’s greatest shows, and that deserves to be discussed in the same breath as other big guns like Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire.
If for whatever reason, you were quick to dismiss My Brilliant Friend as a sweet-natured period piece centred around friendship I beg of you to give it a second go. It really doesn’t take very long at all to fall under its spell.
Contributed by Oliver Ridings.
My Brilliant Friend Contues Monday AND Tuesday at 9.00pm on Sky Atlantic & NOWTV