Aaron Yap finds an “imaginative supernatural delight” in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the BBC One mini-series packed with magic, mystery and memorable characters.
Finding the alt-history Gothic horrors of Penny Dreadful too relentlessly serious and slow-burning for your tastes? BBC One’s period magical fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell should make for ideal alternative viewing.
Much lighter on its feet, and more briskly paced, this seven-part miniseries adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel is a witty, imaginative supernatural delight. It’s a sprawling tale of two dueling 19th century magicians that approximates what Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige might be like if it was written by Jane Austen – or perhaps an R-rated Harry Potter by Charles Dickens.
Clarke’s book is, by all accounts, a complex literary doorstopper. It was even once optioned to be turned into a Lord of the Rings-style movie trilogy. Adapted by director Toby Haynes and writer Peter Harness – both Doctor Who vets – the miniseries’ streamlining of the novel has divided some readers. Viewers who don’t have the burden of comparing it to the source are likely to be immediately taken by its delectable, highly charming storytelling. Packed with wonder, humour, atmosphere and memorable characters – it’s certainly left me hungry for more after three episodes.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell takes a decidedly adult approach to magic (as adult as a show that features naval ships made of rain and giant sand horses can be anyway). There’s much talk of restoring respectability, leaving behind the cheap, side-show theatrics of street performance and employing the practice for good. It’s a mantra oft-repeated by our hermetic protagonist Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan), who spends his days poring over dusty tomes dedicated to magic, with a brooding servant named Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) at his side.
When the story proper begins, Mr. Norrell will be the first English person in 300 years to apply magic practically (its dormancy has something to do with a mysterious, malevolent-sounding figure known as “The Raven King”). In that time, it’s been relegated to the snobby, elite secret societies of theoretical scholars. Norrell, however, wants to show off his stuff, and bring about change. Upon proving his powers by animating cathedral stone statues to said awe-smacked scholars, the Yorkshire-based Norrell moves to London in the hopes of assisting the British army in the Napoleonic Wars.
It’s an enticing set-up that’s made even juicier with the addition of Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a character of markedly different temperament, into the mix. The first time we meet Strange, he has little going for him other than aristocracy. He’s an aimless, unemployed young man simply out to win the affections of Arabella (Charlotte Riley), the fetching sister of a clergyman. A chance encounter with sinister vagabond Vinculus (Paul Kaye) opens up Strange to the world of magic. He soon discovers that he has an intuitive knack for it, if not the studied discipline of Norrell.
I was thinking the show might be priming them for a simple sorcerer’s showdown, but the relationship appears more layered than that. At the start of chapter two, Norrell, visibly enthused to be acquainted with another practical magician with formidable skills, takes Strange under his wing as an apprentice. But by the end, when Strange reveals the magnitude of his abilities, we sense the dynamic shifting somewhere between equal and rival.
Beyond the engaging chemistry of the pair, there’s ample plot to make the rest of the series crackle with intrigue, some of which hints at a darkening tone. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair (Marc Warren), a fairy from another kingdom, is a curious antagonist. Summoned when Norrell resurrects the cabinet minister’s dead wife Lady Pole (Alice Englert) to convert a skeptical parliament, his creepy presence supplies a threat of an otherworldly dimension to the show. Norrell has essentially made a pact with the devil, and the consequences, which he’d rather not to own up to, are dire.
The cast is generally superb. Caval’s Strange – with his bouncy, gentlemanly charisma and ever-so-slight goofiness – is easier to like, but I’m Team Norrell all the way. Few can do crotchety as well as Marsan today. He plays Norrell to crabby perfection, but also makes his mousey persona somewhat affecting (when he delivers the line, “One is never lonely when one has a book”, you can’t help feel for the guy). The menacingly-eyed Warren has his Jareth-meets-Piter De Vries thing down pat, though he could do with a bit more capriciousness to shake things up. Englert is impressive as the increasingly unhinged Lady Pole, an unwitting casualty of Norrell’s quest to gain stature and acceptance.
The special effects might not land the same spectacular wallop as something you’d see on Game of Thrones – think more early Harry Potter movies. But the show is never less than handsomely mounted, and exhibits considerable scope during Strange’s journey to the bloody battlefields of the Peninsula.
It’s also a bewitchingly good time so far, conjuring one of the best spells you could want from a TV show: taking you completely by surprise.
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Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell airs on Sky’s SoHo, Tuesdays 8.30pm, encores Thursdays 7.30pm.
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