The BBC America mini series Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is based on the 2004 debut novel of Susanna Clarke. The novel itself can be a little bit wordy… okay a lot wordy; Clarke’s writing style does mirror that of classic British literature after all. However, the television series strips away all the overly descript pages and leaves behind the real star – the story itself. This is a strange and fascinating tale. Think Harry Potter meets Jane Austin.
The setting of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell takes place in England during the Napoleonic wars at the begging of the 19th century except in this reality magic exists. The series’ namesakes are both magicians and polar opposites in every way.
We are first introduced to Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan, War Horse, Sherlock Holmes, Ray Donovan). Norrell is an arrogant and wealthy gentleman. He’s anti-social and prefers the company of books to people. This is how he has become a powerful magician, self-taught through reading magic books. In fact, he greedily procures magic books as he feels others are not able to understand them the way that he does.
Norrell’s arrogance is shown in full force to the audience when instead of sharing his knowledge with other magicians, he declares himself the only magician. He has the other magicians sign an agreement to this in exchange for a display of his abilities. Thinking that he can’t really preform any spells, they agree only to be made the fools when Norrell brings to life the statues and engravings in a cathedral.
This act makes Norrell somewhat famous and his manservant John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti, Guardians of the Galaxy, Game of Thrones) encourages him to use his skill to help out with the war. They travel to London but Norrell is greeted with skepticism and invited to parties as entertainment.
Meanwhile, a charismatic young man named Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is pinning for the lovely Arabella (Charlotte Riley) and looking to find his purpose in life. Enter Vinculus (Paul Kaye, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who), a crazy eyed street magician spouting the prophecy of the two magicians. Vinculus tells Strange he is destine to be a great magician and sells him some spells. Upon finding that he is able to actual perform the spells, Strange begins to study magic.
Back at London, Norrell learns of the untimely death of politician Sir Walter Pole’s (Samuel West) betrothed Emma (Alice Englert). In order to prove his worth, he decides to resurrect the young woman. Norrell has never done this before and is aware that it could have some very bad results but he decides to bring the lady back to life anyways. He does so by calling on a fairy king (Marc Warren, The Good Wife, ), a ghastly looking gentleman that looks like a cross between David Bowie and The Gentlemen from the Buffy the Vampire episode “Hush.” In fact, the series refers to him only as The Gentleman.
The Gentleman agrees to bring Emma back to life in exchange for half of her pinky finger and half of her life. Norrell takes this to mean that the remainder of Emma life will be cut in half. That’s not what The Gentleman means but we’ll learn that later.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell translates well to the small screen. I think fans of the book as well as those who are unfamiliar with it will enjoy the show. It’s well cast, has great costumes and beautiful cinematography. It captures both the novel’s gothic fantasy as well as it’s historical feel. You can watch the first episode below:
Photo courtesy of BBC America.