Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015)
Directed by: Toby Haynes
Written by: Peter Harness, Susanna Clarke
Starring: Alice Englert, Ariyon Bakare, Bertie Carvel, Charlotte Riley, Eddie Marsan, Edward Hogg, Enzo Cilenti, Marc Warren, Paul Kaye, Samuel West
The year is 1806 and practical English magic has become the stuff of legends. After the Raven King left the North 300 years previously, rogues posing as street magicians have littered the land, but one man by the name of Gilbert Norrell sets his sights on restoring practical magic in England and making it respectable again. After bringing the wife of politician Sir Walter Pole back from the dead, the whole of England begins to celebrate their powerful talent but when another magician, Jonathan Strange, appears on the scene, Norrell is keen to keep the upper hand and does so by employing Strange as his apprentice. But with Strange’s curiosity in ancient magic and the work of the Raven King, Mr Norrell will have a hard time concealing the harsh truths of the troublesome old magic whilst retaining his own ‘reputable’ reputation.
JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL is a 7-part fantasy drama series that recently aired on BBC1 in the UK, adapted from Suzanna Clarke’s book of the same name. It focuses on two magicians, Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan), a quiet yet cunning recluse who’s studied magic for more than 20 years and wants to exclusively own all the magic books in England, and Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a quirky accidental magician who wields incredible power should he learn how to use it. Both of their rise to power in England has been prophecised by the Raven King, or so says Vinculus (Paul Kaye), a vagrant street magician who seems to know more about what’s going on than anyone else. True to the prophecy, Norrell becomes a power in England with his incredible magic but at a cost – a deal made with a fairy known as the Gentleman With the Thistledown Hair who has plans for Lady Pole and others who he seeks to trap in his kingdom of Lost Hope. Having summoned the fairy into this universe, Norrell accidentally unleashes a terrible evil that will not stop until it gets what it wants, whilst he must contend with the young magician Strange who seeks uncover more ancient magic that may or may not hold dangerous paths for them all.
The team behind this adaptation of JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL have done an oustanding job in bringing Suzanna Clarke’s tale to life with its slick visuals and great attention to detail. The costumes, sets and props create such an atmosphere that the viewer is able to instantly fall into that particular world. The stellar choice of cast too are to be celebrated with Marsan and Carvel expertly leading the show, backed up by a tremendous supporting cast including Charlotte Riley (who was terrific as Cathy in Wuthering Heights) as loving wife Mrs Arabella Strange, Marc Warren as the plotting Gentleman With the Thistledown Hair and Enzo Cilenti spouting those flat Yorkshire vowels as the dark, smouldering Childermass, Norrell’s servant and advisor. As much as it is a story about the magicians, the supporting characters have such an important role in the series that they too can be seen on par with the two leads, often having a profound effect on the storyline in some shape or form.
Whilst the series is quite thrilling to watch with its occasional CGI feats of magic, there’s parts that don’t quite work so well. One of the major issues for me is how the scenes often jumped large sections of time. It often took me a few moments to realise where the programme was in terms of the timeframe and because of this, the series doesn’t always flow as well as it could. The magical moments also felt too few and far between though the scene on the beach where Strange creates sand horses for the army simply has to be seen! I would have loved there to have been more moments such as this or just simple feats of magic on-screen. The ultimate issue for me is the story concerning Lost-Hope, the fairy and his enchanted victims. There are often scenes that make little sense and are hard to decipher, forcing the viewer to fill in the blanks for themselves. I’m not an advocate for programmes such as this to hold your hand every step of the way, but there are too many moments in the series when its ambiguity leaves too much guesswork into the equation and thus waters down the plot for a viewer to enjoy. Due to this particular aspect, the finale did not have the impact for me that it seemed to have for others. This may be down to personal taste and preference, but I know I was certainly affected by it.
Despite a few flaws, JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL is such a powerful display of what can be acheived and showcases fine British talent to maximum effect. It’s laced with many comedic moments, from servant and advisor Drawlight over-pronunciating Norrell’s name as “Nor-relle” to magicians Segundus and Honeyfoot’s attempt to ward off unwanted guests by firing walnuts at them. So although there’s a dark tale at the core of the series, there’s much to laugh at and enjoy throughout.