My Brilliant Friend (Sky Atlantic) is the most beautiful drama on television, and, considering how consistently excellent it has been, it remains sorely underrated. This third season adapts the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and, for those who luxuriated in its first two seasons, it remains as gorgeous and seductive as ever.
Lifelong friends and rivals Lila and Elena, or Lenù, are now in their 20s, and their lives have moved away from the poor Naples neighbourhood where they grew up together. The first episode is about Lenù, the one who left, and her rise to fame as a successful writer of what is rumoured to be a racy novel. Success brings her a new life among professors and student activists, where opinions are discussed over expensive dinners and there is no obligation for her to marry her fiance, Pietro, a non-believer, in a church. She has been educated out of her class and traditions, but family ties remain, and much of the first episode concerns how difficult this is for her.
At home in Naples, she is called “superior” and told she has ideas above her station. Every single scene between Lenù and her mother is a mesmerising battle between cruelty and love. In Milan, she must watch on as young academic men are lauded for their brilliance. Lenù is trying to prove that she is a new person, at the same time as trying to work out what it is she wants to say, now that she has a voice with which to say it.
My Brilliant Friend effortlessly balances impossible questions about love, family, shame and duty, and it does so with impeccable style. This series is set in the early 70s and it really is a good-looking drama, cinematic in its ambitions, again taking its visual cues from a particular period of film history (this season’s director, Daniele Luchetti, has said he was inspired by John Cassavetes and 70s US cinema). Even a short scene of Lenù in a bookshop looks stunning, as does Lila walking across a factory floor, surrounded by strung-up animal carcasses.
It is clever to keep Lila out of the first episode, because it makes it more powerful when she comes back into the story in the second. Lila is the one who stayed, in Naples at least, though she remains estranged from her family, and works in a meat factory to support herself and her young son. Lila’s brilliance remains fierce, though her situation is arduous, and she is picked up as a symbol of working-class women and their struggle by the communists in her orbit. Some of the boys from the old neighbourhood are now fascists. Political struggle is everywhere, and the heat of it is rising.
It is both a curious and strangely effective choice to continue with the actors who played Lila and Lenù as teenagers, even as they age into a more adult world and different lives. Gaia Girace (Lila) and Margherita Mazzucco (Lenù), who have been remarkable so far, are 18 and 19, and they look it. While they are dressed up to appear just a little older, with makeup and wigs, their obvious youth gives the effect of young women adrift in the world, and sometimes they look like children playing at adulthood. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but it does – adding to the notion that they are searching for something, even if they don’t quite know what it is yet.
This is television at its best and it weaves a spell unlike anything I have seen in a very long time. It demands concentration but rewards it generously. For those who have yet to experience the pleasure of My Brilliant Friend, I would suggest not jumping in here, as both personal and political histories weigh heavily on the characters and their relationships. Go back to the beginning, and take it all in.