Adapted from the bestselling book by Elena Ferrante, who worked on the scripts with director Saverio Costanzo and others, and produced in concert with European networks, the production has done a masterful job of preserving the writer’s voice. The real triumph, though, is in the casting, especially the young actresses who play the central characters at different ages.
Like the book, the story begins by flashing back, as Elena, now in her 60s, is informed that her one-time bosom pal Lila has disappeared. Sounding more resigned than surprised, she quickly begins reminiscing about their upbringing, when the two were the smartest girls in their class, during a time of post-war upheaval and poverty when girls weren’t encouraged to study or seek to elevate their station beyond that of their parents.
Fearless, rebellious and more than a little mysterious, Lila (Ludovica Nasti) exhibits a powerful hold over Elena (Elisa Del Genio), inspired a mix of admiration and envy. They reside in a town where there’s little ostensible authority and the working people struggle to get by, while living in fear of characters like the loan-shark Don Achille, who Elena’s narration describes as “the ogre of fairy tales.”
The girls’ friendship, however, grows deeper, as they bond by reading “Little Women” together (“It was our book, and we loved it dearly”), before puberty begins to complicate their lives, with Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace taking over the roles.
Elena manages to convince her family to let her stay in school, while Lila doesn’t; nevertheless, Lila continues to read and educate herself, even as she blossoms into a much-in-demand beauty, resisting the advances of the well-to-do boy that’s pursuing her.
The project’s brilliance most often comes in small but illuminating scenes, such as the look on the face of Elena’s father when he tries introducing her to a wealthy man at his work, only to be bluntly dismissed. Ferrante also deals with issues of class and inequality, filtered through a period of tumult, where turning to communism is among the alternatives.
While the lives shown aren’t glamorous, the meticulous nature of the village makes it a place you want to visit — whether the passage is booked by travel agent or time machine.
HBO has enjoyed a good deal of success with its limited series, many of them driven by high-profile stars, a la “Big Little Lies.” Here, the book is the centerpiece, and the setting and performances make it possible to escape almost entirely into the sometimes aching, sometimes stirring, almost invariably beautiful world of “My Brilliant Friend.”
“My Brilliant Friend” premieres Nov. 18 at 9 p.m. on HBO, with the eight episodes airing Sundays and Mondays over four weeks.