Sitting on my bookshelf is a book I bought for my mum, borrowed from her, started and never finished. That book is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; the adaptation of which just finished a seven week run on the BBC. Having enjoyed what little I managed to read all those years ago I decided to give the TV series a try. I loved it from the start.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is set in an alternative version of 19th-century England in which magic is real but has not been practiced for hundreds of years. Instead magical societies are made up of theoretical magicians who are no more likely to produce a spell than an astronomer is to produce a star. Enter Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) a quiet and studious man who has slowly amassed a great library of books on magic. Norrell wagers with his local magical society that if he can perform a feat of magic they must disband and never be allowed to call themselves magicians again. Sure enough magic is restored to England with Norrell the sole practitioner.
Meanwhile Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a wealthy man with no vocation, is approached by a mad man and told that he is a magician. Strange takes his cue and pursues magic and before too long the two magicians are in London trying to work together. Norrell favours a modern scholarly approach to magic whilst Strange possesses a more natural talent and seeks to access the older magic of the Raven King; a mythical figure who seemingly brought magic to the country before turning against it. Throw in the Napoleonic war, making deals with mystical creatures to raise people from the dead, and the polite sparring of two English gentleman and you have yourself a series.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is great. Need I say more? The series is funny, dark, and fantastical. Considering it has to combine both period elements and supernatural special effects the show does a wonderful job of realising both. With BBC productions I come to expect a certain level of ropiness when it comes to special effects but Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell somehow executes everything flawlessly. There is a real cinematic quality to the visuals that takes the show above and beyond expectations. It is all the easier to succumb to a show when you aren’t constantly pointing out where the green screen was used.
Great visuals are all well and good but without a strong cast they are worthless. Luckily the acting is just as good. Carvel gives a wonderful performance as he takes Strange from a layabout to a passionate magician and finally presents him as a man possessed. Marsan as Norrell gives a subtle and relatable performance as a man slowly corrupted by his desire to do good. I want to single out other members of the cast but once I started it got a bit out of control. Suffice it to say that there is no weak link amongst them.
In adapting Susanna Clarke’s original novel Peter Harness has successfully wrangled a hefty book into a stripped down narrative. The resulting series is both terrifying and funny, moving and fantastical. I wish the BBC made more of this quality, and less like The Casual Vacancy. I also wish that more people had seen Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell when it aired as it is a real treat.
If only they could get it on DVD instead…
I think I might finish that book now.
The series is accompanied by a decent set of extras. There is sadly no nerdily in-depth behind the scenes documentary but there is a good package of mostly talking heads from the cast and crew. Surprisingly enough there is a bloopers reel which was OK and a few deleted scenes which were much more interesting. For anyone marvelling at the visuals like me the most intriguing extra will be the breakdowns of special effects from the first two episodes. The extras might not be worth investing in the DVD for but the quality and entertainment value of the series more than makes up for it.