My Brilliant Friend

As America puts up the shutters, it’s heartening to see HBO ploughing millions of dollars into its first European foreign language miniseries. That said, My Brilliant Friend hardly feels like a risky investment, given the 10 million copies Elena Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan novels’ have shifted since 2012.

This week’s opening double-bill found our narrator, Lenu, casting back to her childhood in postwar Naples, and her first encounter with Lila – the brooding, fiercely intelligent shoemaker’s daughter who will cast such a long shadow over her life. There’s a passionate intensity to the girls’ friendship, and a rivalry too, as they yearn to escape the shrinking horizons of the dirt-poor neighbourhood that’s the only world they’ve ever known.

In the hands of director Saverio Costanzo, it’s a world that feels impressively distinct and self-contained: the shabby streets and apartment blocks have been realised on a vast, purpose-built set, while every frame is rendered in the same bloodless, hand-picked colour palette of dusty greys and browns (inspired, apparently, by Picasso’s Guernica).

It’s unusual for a blockbuster TV series to rely so heavily on inner lives. That this works so beautifully is in no small part thanks to the extraordinarily assured performances of its young leads, Elisa Del Genio (Lenu) and Ludovica Nasti (Lila). Both Naples locals, neither of whom had acted before, their watchful eyes are the lens through which we observe this life of grinding poverty, punctuated by sudden explosions of violence from desperate men and mothers ‘as furious as starving dogs’.

Ferrante – whose real identity remains, despite several attempts to ‘out’ her (or him?), modern literature’s most fiercely guarded secret – has scripted the dialogue, much of it in a working class Neapolitan dialect so idiosyncratic even Italian viewers get subtitles. She also handpicked the director, signed off on the casting and paid a stealth visit to the set, all without revealing her identity, even to Costanzo.

Her close attention to the details is just one reason why her 10 million readers will feel their treasured story is in safe hands. By every possible measure, this dazzling adaptation is a triumph.

TV extra:


Inside the Foreign Office

Filmmaker Michael Waldman certainly picked a good year to spend behind closed doors with the diplomats of the FCO, as they scramble to deal with crises blowing up everywhere from Burma to Salisbury. It was also, of course, the year of Boris Johnson, whose contributes to the film are, naturally, partly in Latin. Even BoJo, though, can’t come up with a zinger as good as permanent undersecretary Sir Simon McDonald’s assertion that ‘diplomacy is the art of letting other people have your way’.


Michael McIntyre’s Big Show

Michael McIntyre may be comedy Marmite, but even his loudest critics would have to concede the Big Show is brilliant, big tent Saturday night telly. This week’s highlights included MM scrolling through Holly Willoughby’s recent Amazon orders and 91-year-old crooner David bringing the house down as the Unexpected Star of the Show. Throw Little Mix into the, er, mix and, four series in, it’s the closest the Beeb have come to finding their own Saturday Night Takeaway.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 22, 2018

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