[This is a review of the series premiere of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There will be SPOILERS.]
BBC America’s delightful Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the mash-up of Harry Potter and a comedy of manners you never knew you wanted. Adapted from Susanna Clarke’s bestselling 2004 novel of the same name, the seven-episode miniseries (which began airing last month on BBC) aims to give fans as faithful a rendering of the author’s weighty tome as possible. And even though the miniseries must occasionally boil the novel down to its essence (eschewing those remarkable footnotes that made Clarke’s text seem so vibrantly real), these seven hours get off to a lively start in ‘Chapter One: The Friends of English Magic.’
One might describe what lies ahead for even the most casual viewer, as utterly charming. Adapted by Peter Harness (Doctor Who) and directed by Toby Haynes (Sherlock), the story revolves primarily around the titular Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) and Norrell (Eddie Marsan), two magicians with distinctly disparate personalities.
High-spirited though he is, Strange is a bit of a lost soul, one who finds that limiting himself to scarcely more than a bottle a day is cutting back on his drinking. He’s perpetually on holiday, as his would-be paramour Arabella (Charlotte Ray) describes him, before politely putting off his proposal until he can find some form of suitable employment – which he does in the wake of his overbearing father’s death, when he meets “a man under a hedge” (a bearded scoundrel named Vinculus, played by Paul Kaye) who tells him he’s a magician. Of course, in the way that we come to learn is distinctly Jonathan Strange-like, he believes the man, and sets off to begin performing spells.
Norrell, on the other hand, isn’t quite as social. Locked away in his massive library in which he hoards the books (and therefore, the knowledge) of his practice, Norrell has dedicated himself to the intellectual discipline of magic, which once defined the country he calls home. Aside from his faithful manservant/adviser Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), Norrell leads a solitary life, until one day a young admirer and scholar named Segundus (Edward Hogg) invites The Society of Magic to embrace the man performing the art they study, the art that has not been performed in England for some 300 years.
That’s the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: An alternate early 19th-century Britain that once revolved around the practice of magic. Now it is a world of stubborn politicians and even more obstinate academics, men who initially object to Norrell’s desire to see magic restored to its former reverence amongst the people. For his part, Norrell sees the ongoing war with Napoleon as the means by which he can elevate the forgotten art form of conjuring to its rightful place. And not a moment too soon; cold and grey, the series is set in a distinctly Dickensian world in desperate need of a little magic, practical and otherwise.
The first hour revolves mainly around Norrell’s attempts at revivifying the nations interest in his art – or at least convincing others he’s no mere street corner vagabond, hawking his magical wares in the crowded markets to easily enthralled passersby. Riding high off a show he made of some stone statues in a cathedral in York, Norrell turns his sights to Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West), a young, ambitious politician who initially refutes his offer of magical help against the indomitable force of Napoleon’s army, until, with the help of The Gentleman (Marc Warren) – a mysterious magical being that resembles Christopher Walken in a Riddler/Poison Ivy mash-up costume – the conjurer is able to bring Lady Pole (Alice Englert) back from the dead…minus a pinky finger.
That’s a lot to for the audience (even those acquainted with the source material) to absorb in an hour, which might explain why the premiere wisely keeps its two leads apart from one another. Instead, ‘Chapter One: The Friends of English Magic’ spends its time laying the groundwork on which this alternative history can rise. Every location, from the crowded streets of London, to Norrell’s chilly, candle-lit library, to the pastoral church Strange meets his ladylove, feels lived-in and tangible. Although the series relies heavily on special effects, the sets and locations go a long way in making it all wonderfully real, exciting, and vibrant. There’s even a bit of Monty Python-esque humor thrown in when Strange happens upon the aforementioned man under a hedge and tells his servant to fetch him a large stick – all the better to poke the vagrant with. The shot cuts to Strange riding up to the man on horseback with a crooked tree limb – branches and all – under his arm like a jousting stick. That kind of humor and willingness to embrace absurdity reinforces the premise of the story and invites the audience to wander with it further down the rabbit hole.
With six hours to go, the series has plenty of time to build upon all the world building being done here. For all that it accomplishes in the charm department, the first chapter of the miniseries also makes its story scaffolding look remarkably sturdy and well built. In addition to drawing two colorful and rounded lead characters, there are several mentions of The Raven King, who, despite sounding like a name discarded name from the True Detective sorting hat, seems to have an acolyte in Vinculus, and becomes an ominous off-screen presence, following a tarot reading gone awry.
Ultimately, this is a show about passion. While there is a romantic subplot between Strange and Arabella, it’s not the kind passion that sparks flames of amorous desire. Instead, it is the passion for where one’s interests lie, even when the population at large treats them with little to no regard. In a way, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the story of the power of geek culture before it blew up and became just culture. That love of the fantastic is evident in every singing stone statue, every body risen from the dead, and every ambitious, effects-laden set piece yet to come. Of course, with every cultural conversion there’ll be a price to pay, but for now, this series is content to present the makers of awe as something truly awe-inspiring.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell continues next Saturday with ‘Chapter Two: How is Lady Pole?’ @10pm on BBC America. Check out an extended preview below:
Photos: Matt Squire/BBC America