The moment that sold me on My Brilliant Friend, HBO’s effective adaptation of the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante’s best-selling novel, wasn’t a shocking twist or suspenseful cliffhanger. Instead, it's a quiet, almost banal truth near the end of the first episode. Elena Greco (Elisa Del Genio) and Lila Cerullo (Ludovica Nasti), two girls growing up poor in Naples in the 1950s,
It’s just exactly the sort of thing little girls do — endow their toys with the kind of free will they themselves so rarely get to exercise. Premiering on Nov. 18, My Brilliant Friend, the first of the wildly successful four-book series known as the Neapolitan Novels, is full of such details. The story of two girls who are too smart for their circumstances, one of whom will manage to transcend them, the show casts the minutiae of their tiny world as high drama. The stakes are high for narrator Elena and especially Lila, a child prodigy whose father becomes so irate at her insistence that she continue onto
The miniseries, a co-production with Italian networks Rai and TIMvision, is the first non-English language series to premiere on HBO. It has the formidable task of adapting a work that is not only hugely popular — the books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide — but is largely concerned with the inner lives of its lead characters, one of whom eventually grows up to become an author. Part of what makes the books remarkable is their elucidation of the process of developing an individual consciousness, and the expression of that consciousness through increasingly sophisticated language. The series honors this as much as it can. In one scene, the voiceover of a grown Elena reflects on a brilliant story that Lila wrote as a child, and remarks, in hindsight, “You didn't feel the artifice of the written word.” As old Elena reflects, director Saverio Costanzo films young Elena on the rooftop of her apartment, surrounded by flowing white sheets hanging on a line, gazing at a glistening hilltop in the distance — as if to suggest that language is the key to growth, to freedom, to
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The actors, many of them unknown and even amateur performers, speak in a thick dialect, and like the characters, Costanzo’s camera rarely strays from the confines of the neighborhood they call home. The Naples of My Brilliant Friend is not picturesque. It’s dusty and dry and colorless; gray apartment buildings rise from gravel streets into cloudy skies. We’re stuck in the same claustrophobic state as the restless
The adaptation rests largely on the backs of the four girls — Del Genio and Nasti, and Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia
Just as blunt is the focus on the psychological and intellectual development of two girls, subject matter that, on stateside screens, is rarely accorded the kind of fanfare that comes with a highly anticipated HBO miniseries. Elena’s voiceover narration goes a long way in this regard. Like My So-Called Life, the critically acclaimed 1990s drama about a teenage girl figuring out who she is, My Brilliant Friend gives a rather eloquent voice to the inner workings of young girls’ minds. It takes them seriously, paints them as fully human and lets them explain to us how it feels.
My Brilliant Friend premieres November 18 on HBO.