[This is a review of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
The summer television season has been a crowded affair. Just flipping through the channels in search of what to watch has been an indoor kid’s version of scanning a crowded beach for a place to lay his or her towel. But instead of being nestled between some greasy, Coppertone-smelling guy in a speedo and a caravan of crying kids, this summer has been more akin to being surrounded by people you actually want to see. It’s enough to make you feel guilty that you can only devote so much time to these new and interesting acquaintances.
Nestled in and among all this quality content has been the utterly charming Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which for the past seven weeks has delivered a consistent stream of engaging episodes, revolving around the two titular magicians, as they work with and against one another to bring magic back to England.
As far as an adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s weighty tome was concerned, the miniseries seemed like the way to go. Instead of condensing Clarke’s sprawling prose and charming footnotes into a single film (or across several, since that’s how books are adapted these days), devoting seven hours to the Victorian misadventures of England’s premier practical magicians felt like it would be time well spent. And for the most part, it has been.
Yet, even though the finale, ‘Chapter Seven: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,’ delivered an enthralling reconciliation for the titular pair, their ongoing struggles against the surreptitiously conjured Fairy (Marc Warren), as well as the reveal of the Raven King, tended to feel as though key pieces had been omitted, in order to meet the overall needs of the miniseries’ runtime.
That’s not to say the series as a whole wasn’t worth every last minute of its seven-hour runtime; it’s merely to suggest that Clarke’s novel is so expansive, and its characters so fully realized, that even seven hours of television time may have been too constrictive a suit in which to parade such a massive story.
To that end, both the series as a whole and the final episode felt, at times, to be a little scattered. The finale, with its many dangling threads to tie up and mysteries to be solved, moved, to its great credit, at a breakneck pace. And even then, much of what found its way onscreen could have lifted a page from Strange’s post-battle-with-the-Fairy book and lingered for just a while longer. Between trying to guess who or what the Raven King was, what Vinculus (Paul Kaye) still had to say, and how Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare) fit into the larger scheme of things (much less, what he was doing in that tiny room), this last hour could easily have been two. And in a day and age where The Hobbit is deservedly derided for its unnecessarily inflated runtime, this occasion is almost certainly the exception to the rule.
Still, the sheer exuberance and winning charm with which the series has presented each episode works as a kind of enchantment, making the viewer forget some of the narrative’s shortcomings. Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel have both been so wonderful as Norrell and Strange, respectively, the miniseries can only be thought of as a winner. And thanks to terrific performances from Charlotte Riley, Alice Englert – in otherwise thankless roles as Strange’s wife Arabella and the tormented Lady Pole – and especially Marc Warren, whose onscreen presence refused to be lost in the shadow cast by the enormous silver wig on his head, the series just keeps on winning.
The result of all that personality and magnetism makes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell the sort of weird but wonderful summer series whose finale rises above its failings and manages to deliver something exciting and emotionally resonant.
There is a frantic hurriedness in nearly every moment of ‘Chapter Seven,’ which, in turn, becomes the most pressing challenge for the narrative as a whole. Strange and Norrell haven’t shared the screen substantially for what seems like a number of episodes, and by forcing them back together – and seemingly pitting the former teacher and pupil against one another – the story not only gains considerable momentum, but the crux of the entire series is once again handed the character-based weight it deserves.
Carvel and Marsan enjoy the kind of playful repartee you would normally associate with actors who have made a career out of working with one another. As a result, even though their characters are largely kept away from the rest of the cast, it feels as though Strange and Norrell are at the center of all that is happening. And while the B-plot takes up a considerable amount of time, focusing on Stephen Black’s reprisal toward The Gentleman, the two threads add up to something substantial, even in the wake of the otherwise brief, underwhelming, and emotionally inconsequential appearance of the Raven King.
Without trying to sound like a broken record, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell could have benefitted from, at the very least, one more hour. Just so that the climax wasn’t forced to share so much of its screen time with the denouement. Stephen’s defeat of the Fairy at Lost Point felt as though it lacked the timbre such a showdown requires. And Arabella’s goodbye to her husband came off far too rushed, while Childermass’ welcoming/challenge to his fellow magicians to uncover the secrets etched on Vinculus’ skin felt as though it could have been an episode unto itself.
It has been a crowded season of summer television, and so it’s understandable why this imaginative and engaging miniseries would only want to take up seven hours of its audience’s time. But with so much to choose from and so many different ways for viewers to get their fix, what’s an extra hour when it could have meant the difference between being good and downright great?
All episodes of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are available on BBC America on demand.
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