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You Need to Be Watching 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell' on BBC America Right Now

By Rebecca Pahle | Miscellaneous | July 14, 2015 |


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This Saturday, the penultimate episode of seven-part miniseries Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell airs on BBC America, about three weeks after the show wrapped up its debut run in the UK. The 2004 fantasy novel it’s based on, by Susana Clarke, is easily in my top five books of all time (Nothing pushes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy out of the number one spot. Ever.), and I’ve been waiting for the BeeB to get their ass in gear and miniseries it for years now. Now that it’s finally happened, Jonathan Strange has not disappointed. If you haven’t been watching, you have more than enough time to catch up before the season finale airs on BBCA on the 25th. And here’s why you should.

The book is awesome

The basic premise of JSMR is that it’s a 19th century English drama set in a world where magic exists. “Jane Austen meets Harry Potter” is that phrase that gets thrown around most often. The two men of the title are the two remaining “practical” magicians—ie, magicians who do magic, as compared to “theoretical” magicians, who sit around arguing over it all day like Ye Olde Internet Commenters. Mr. Norrell is a pendantic old fuddy-duddy who spends his time poring over books, while his pupil Mr. Strange is a magician more of the “WANT ME TO GO TO WATERLOO AND FIGHT NAPOLEON? I’LL FUCKING DO IT. YAAAAAH, MAGIC” variety.

The miniseries’ changes to the book actually make sense

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As a fan of the book, I was eager to see what changes the BBC would make to its story. There would have to be some, because JSMR is a tome of 800-some pages with a lot of characters and a fairly sprawling story.

Happily, I can’t think of a change they made that I didn’t like. For example: The relationship between Strange (Bertie Carvel) and his wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) is a lot warmer than it is in the book, by virtue of the book being written in the style of a 19th century novel, so its prose is intentionally proper and a bit stiff. Book!Jonathan Strange never would have been late for a meeting with the king so he could have a quickie with his wife, because people in Jane Austen-type novels don’t have sex, even if they’re married. That works in prose, but translated to a visual medium—where you’re watching Jonathan and Arabella interact with each other—you need to get the sense that they really, truly are in love. Because of things. Things that happen.

Female Friendship

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And another change: The friendship between Arabella and Lady Pole (Alice Englert), present in the novel, is beefed up in the show. TL;DR—Lady Pole has some magical shenanigans going on, and she’s not pleased about it. She is officially done with asshole men messing with her shit. After the book ends, she, Arabella, and another female character, Flora (Lucinda Dryzek), travel Europe fighting crime like 19th century Charlie’s Angels. I am convinced.

Bertie Carvel’s hair

Jonathan Strange is played by one Bertie Carvel, who is mostly known for musical theatre, specifically originating the role of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical. He’s wonderful, and he has really good hair:

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This motherfucker right here

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This is Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), Mr. Norrell’s #1 servant and “man of business,” only sometimes his feelings of respect for his master are overcome by his being unimpressed by some of Norrell’s more little shitbagel weenie tendencies. He’s the guy rolling his eyes and telling all these assholes in their fancy jackets to get their shit together. You will fall in love with him. Everyone does. Plus, he and smelly hobo magician Vinculus (Game of Thrones’ Paul Kaye), as seen in the top image, are the new Tyrion and Bronn. I demand a buddy comedy.

Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare) will take out your heart and stomp on it

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Fair warning that that will happen.

So you can write me a fanfic where The Man With the Thistle-Down Hair and Thranduil Have An Eyebrow Battle

This is The Man With the Thistle-Down Hair (Marc Warren). JSMR’s primary antagonist, he is a faerie and a grade-a asshole:

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This is Thranduil. He likes mooses.

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They are twins separated at birth. Get writing.

And finally:

Eddie Marsan slaughters everyone in a 100-mile radius with his acting skills

Changes are you’ve seen Eddie Marsan in something, because he’s one of those British actors who just keeps popping up everywhere (V for Vendetta, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, The World’s End, Ray Donovan if anyone watches Ray Donovan). If you’ve seen him in something, you’ve probably liked him, in an “Oh, that guy’s pretty good” sort of way, because he is. Here, Marsan takes center stage, and he’s phenomenal. Mr. Norrell is an incredibly complex character—he’s a little shit who’s determined that his way of doing magic is the only way, but he’s also a scared, lonely old man who just wants to go home and read a book, dammit. His friendship with Strange kills me. Marsan nails it, 100%.

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