Review: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’

BBC America’s new mini-series, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is an intriguing mix of the suppressed air of Downton Abbey with the mystery and phantasma of Penny Dreadful. Based on the 2004 novel by Susanna Clarke, Strange hardly follows the gore and open sexuality of Showtime’s gothic drama, but I’m hard pressed to find a comparison that isn’t Harry Potter, the series that draws the most immediate comparisons to Strange simply because it’s about magic.

What truly lies at the heart of the series – of which I’ve seen the first two episodes – is the give and take friendship/rivalry between the title characters, two men, both accomplished in magic, who wish to bring magic back to 19th century England after years of decay and neglect. Amadeus and Salieri. Kennedy and Nixon. Literature, theater, film, and history all feature similar rivals. One, studious and accomplished. The other, naturally talented but decidedly not a fan of studies. Add Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange to that cannon.

It’s been years since I’ve read the massive novel, so the details of the story are faint. I say this to give the perspective of someone relatively unaware of the intricate world building and broad array of characters inherent to the story. Clarke’s novel actually bears more resemblance to that of Charles Dickens, and, like many television or film adaptations of his work, Strange ends up suffering a little from the “greatest hits” syndrome of the novel. As I moved through the first two episodes, things started jogging my memory – and some omissions. In particular, the pilot has a difficult time fully integrating us into this world. Characters are introduced without significant fanfare, and you often fail to understand their significance to the story.

Once Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is introduced, however, things really start advancing at a faster pace. Marsan plays Norrell like a prickly hermit, quickly the most intelligent man in the room and weary for constantly being reminded of it. His early feats of magic are practical and low key, save the amusing bit in a gothic cathedral where he brings statues to life to prove his chops. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is a curious, passionate man. Aimless and slightly flighty, he has an inherent gift for magic, and his scenes bring much life to the sometimes dreary proceedings. In the second episode, he begins to partner with Mr. Norrell, and I can see the interaction and contrasts between the two actors will serve the series well. But these things are only as good as their villains, and The Gentleman (Marc Warren) provides a chilling addition. Initially summoned by Mr. Norrell to bring a politician’s wife back to life, The Gentleman first appears as something of a ghostly fop, decorated in Louis XIV wigs and powder. His subsequent actions and penchant for crossing over into the world of the living make him increasingly threatening.

The look and feel of the series is a step up from the usual BBC-based fare. The filmmakers have done a lot to anchor the proceedings in a tangible 19th century reality. Even the scenes of magic are muted and practical appearing (some would say done with poor CGI but I’m a glass half-full guy). When characters travel into The Gentleman’s other world to visit his Lost Hope estate, the setting is decided low-key and economical in its rendition. That’s not a slam at all. In fact, I think it’s very much appropriate for the series.

If I feel slightly reserved about the series, then it’s because I wish it were a little more lively and a little less of a BBC drama. The overall air has that muted and reserved appeal of most BBC productions. Even the cinematography is rendered with hues of grey and blue. I’ll agree that it’s appropriate, but, given the sometimes ponderous passages of exposition carried by the actors, you sometimes yearn for a little variation in the color palate or tone. One of my very favorite things thus far is one of Mr. Norrell’s biggest devotees who announces him with a flourish of “MISTER NORREELLLLLLL.” Otherwise, if you ever wondered what Harry Potter would have looked like done by the BBC, then take a peak at Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. 

And I say that only because they both deal with magic.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell starts airing Saturday night at 10pm EST on BBC America. 

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