Before you go any further, please make sure to read Rebecca’s spot-on review of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. You can also check out a few trailers of it when the release of the series was first announced. Pajiba has been kind of psyched about this show for a while now, and with good reason.
This aired last June, but if you’re anything like me, TV is often a game of catch up, and it’s always helpful to know exactly what to bother catching up on.
I hadn’t previously read the book by Susannah Clarke, but from most of what you hear from book readers, the BBC show was able to largely capture the spirit of the book. In many cases, people credited the show for actually being more focused, and really pulling out the best parts of the book. When Susannah Clarke visited the set during the shoot and saw the first assembly-cut scene she reportedly started crying and said “it’s going to be great.”
She was right. It was.
Anyway, I went in fresh. So if you’re a non-book reader, that’s okay.
It’s seven hours of visual deliciousness. But let me say this up front: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell feels dense. It feels like an alternate time reality. When the first hour was complete, while enjoyable, it felt like three hours. I know that seems like a knock but it isn’t. It’s heavy and it takes place during the Age of Reason so the language is more ornate and if you just watch it cold, it takes some getting used to.
The story revolves around the titular characters bringing practical magic back to England after it’s been gone for three hundred years. Mr. Norrell is a skilled magician with little talent. Jonathan Strange is a talented magician with little skill. And when we, they, I say magicians, we’re talking about wizards here. Not people who are performing tricks for an audience. We’re talking about Gandalf on the bridge. Magic used to raise the dead. Magic used to animate. Magic used in war itself. This isn’t your great grandfather’s magic — or rather, it very much is, if your great grandfather was a little twisted and in England in 1804.
Once you buy in, (for me it was when Jonathan Strange went to war in episode three), the show begins to very slowly spirit you away, like being carried along on a river of pleasant smelling molasses. It doesn’t tend to line up naturally with typical speedy American viewer sensibilities, but if it appeals to you to step outside of the normal sort of view continuum you’re accustomed to, the result feels very rewarding.
Initially, not having known any of the actors in any real sense (A few have flitted with roles on Game of Thrones) I was ambivalent about my connection to them. “I don’t know this person, so whatever.” But then, by the end, it feels as if you’ve accompanied them on a great journey, and because of across-the-board outstanding and subtle performances, you look upon them with warmth and appreciation. After experiencing what they’re capable of, I can’t imagine seeing something else with Eddie Marsan:
Or Bertie Cavel:
Or Charlotte Riley:
Or Alice Englert:
Or, my goodness gracious, Ariyon Bakare, without being extremely fired up.
But, as Rebecca pointed out, this dude, Childermass, played by Enzo Cilenti? This was a breakout role. He was so powerful on the screen that he absolutely devoured it. If I’m a casting agent and I’m not pushing the quiet, serene power of Ariyon Bakare or the weathered smirk of Enzo Cilenti I don’t deserve to be a casting agent.
It’s a lovely, grand piece, with surprisingly good special effects. Having the same writer (Peter Harness), director (Toby Haynes) and producer (Nick Hirschkorn) really kept the through-lines on point and allowed you to sink into the story in a way that kept variation at a minimum. It’s not perfect, and any adaptation of a 1000+ page book is bound to be a little ambitious. There are points where you feel like you could use a map and some beats that are really milked for all of their essence (and any spare essence the neighbors may have on hand), but if you commit to this seven-hour, forty course meal, and allow yourself to sloooooowww down, you come away having seen some powerful acting, and with a profound new love for the history and wonder of English magic.
I watched in on Blu-Ray from my local library, but it’s also available on iTunes and Amazon.