James Poniewozik – Nov 14, 2018
In 2011, HBO began a series based on a set of books whose legion of fans had exacting expectations. “Game of Thrones” required condensing a vast narrative, visualizing wonders like dragons’ flight and creating a world that spanned continents.
HBO’s new series “My Brilliant Friend,” based on the wildly popular Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, is a different but no smaller challenge. The story of a febrile and rivalrous friendship between two girls in a working-class Italian neighborhood in the 1950s, it is as intimate as “Game of Thrones” is sweeping.
The first season, which begins Sunday, is set largely in a single cluster of apartments. Its drama, though punctuated by violence, is interior and inwardly focused. It enfolds warring families and shifting alliances, but in a setting where everyone is packed close and prying eyes and whispers are inescapable.
It is a game of courtyards, stairwells and balconies. But as earthbound as it is, “My Brilliant Friend” is no less transporting.
For readers of the books, it is probably enough to know that the first season, which corresponds to the first of the four novels, sticks close to the source material. For newcomers, that is the story of Elena Greco, called Lenù, and Rafaella Cerullo, called Lila. They form an ardent bond their first year of school, in a dusty, low-rise neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples.
Lenù (played by Elisa Del Genio as a girl, Margherita Mazzucco as a teenager) is studious and reserved, a people pleaser. Lila (Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace) is prodigiously smart, with a fierce charisma and a prophet’s coal-eyed intensity. They’re two bright girls in a community that doesn’t know what to do with bright girls.