Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a miniseries adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s best seller, has landed on BBC America.

Strange and Norrell: Image provided by imdb/BBC

Set in the early 19th century, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell tells the tale of the two very different men who bring about a magic renaissance in Great Britain. The premise takes for granted that magic previously was commonplace, but by the time the action starts, has mostly faded. A Yorkshire society dedicated to the theoretical study of English magic openly scoffs at the notion of an actual practitioner.

But one member, Segundus (Edward Hogg), makes contact with the reclusive Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan), who turns out to have actual ability. Norrell, stooping, reticent and undynamic, has undertaken a quiet campaign, assisted by his mysterious aide Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), to prevent books of practical magic from falling into hands other than his and to suppress other practitioners.

Norrell reluctantly travels to London, but the unassuming man finds his attempts to place his services at the disposal of the British government rebuffed. The somewhat colorless Norrell makes an ill-fated stab at connecting with London society. He also crosses paths with Vinculus (Paul Kaye), a disreputable street magician who proclaims a prophecy of the two men that will restore English magic.

Vinculus: Image provided by imdb/BBC

Man number two would be Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), an aimless young man from a good family whose chief ambition is to convince the sensible Arabella (Charlotte Riley) to marry him. A chance encounter with Vinculus convinces Jonathan to take up the study of magic. By episode’s end, Strange successfully performs his first spell.

On the verge of leaving London, Norrell is convinced to attempt to sway the influential Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West), whose wealthy young fiancée (Alice Englert) has just passed away. Norrell makes a pact with the mysterious Gentleman (Marc Warren) to bring the young lady back, though at a price neither fully appreciates.

The first installment plays out mostly like the classy period drama it is. There’s a certain amount of world building that’s necessary and it’s not an action-intensive part of the story. Strange and Norrell both get decent introductions. Carvel is convincing as a basically decent man of privilege in need of a direction and makes the most of his more limited screen time. Marsan has the harder job, making the inherently meek Norrell interesting, but he’s up to the challenge. Marsan makes some very smart, deliberate choices that communicate quite a bit about Norrell, setting up the inevitable contrast with the more colorful Strange.

Norrell and the Gentleman: Image provided by imdb/BBC

For a series about magic, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell doesn’t feature that much of it in the opener and a lot of that is of the more subtle variety. But it does include an impressive sequence where Norrell animates a roomful of statues. And the sudden appearance of the Gentleman adds a nice jolt to the climax of episode one. The narrative manages to hold attention with the gradual revelation of information about the history of magic and Norrell’s background.

For those who hadn’t previously read Clarke’s excellent, detailed novel, the start of the mini-series might not provide enough of a hook to return. Certainly Clarke’s imaginative asides and footnotes to mythical works of magic are missed in the adaptation. But Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell does a lot right in establishing its world. The period details are spot on, with some particular excellent art direction and scenic design. The cast is filled with the kind character actors that any fan of British TV and cinema will find familiar. And the production just looks great. All the elements add up nicely to an atmospheric, stylish period saga with some nice twists.

The story of the novel was very much one that built in power of the course of its run. If the mini-series can ultimately come close to matching the cumulative impact of its source material, sticking around for the whole thing is worthwhile.

Originally published at on June 15, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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