Director: Toby Haynes
Screenplay: Peter Harness
Starring: Eddie Marsan, Marc Warren, Paul Kaye, Bertie Carvel, Alice Englert
Running Time: 413 mins
BBFC Classification: 15
A UK and Canadian co-production, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an impressive BBC mini-series told on an epic scale and based on Susanna Clarke’s 2005 acclaimed novel of the same name.
The year is 1806 and England has grown weary of its bloody and prolonged war with Napoleon, and three centuries have passed since any practical magic was last practiced in the country. But two scholars of the history of magic, Mr Srgundis (Edward Hogg) and Mr Honeyfoot, discover that the arcane arts are still practiced by a certain Mr Norrell, (played by Eddie Marsan) who spends most of his time hidden away in his vast library of magical books up on the Yorkshire moors. Finally convinced to demonstrate his arcane abilities Mr Norrell brings the stone statues of York Minster to life for the dumbstruck members of the Society of Magicians, thus setting off a chain of events that will change the face of England forever.
However, there is a prophecy that predicts the arrival of not just one, but two significant magicians, and hence a mad servant of the ancient Raven King, a vagabond called Vinculus (Paul Kaye), is sent to ignite a lust for magic in a certain Jonathan Strange who is desperately looking for a career with which to impress his beloved Arabella. It turns out that magic comes easily to him and his magical activities bring him to the attention of Mr Norrell who strongly disapproves of the direction the younger man is taking.
Unfortunately, even though he has a singular vision to make magic respectable once again in England, Mr Norris decides to invoke an old and dangerous magic in order to raise a beautiful woman from the dead so that he can gain the respect of those who govern the country. But everything comes with a price and he makes a deal with a faerie creature, known only as The Gentleman (Marc Warren), which will have far-reaching consequences not only for himself and the poor woman in question, but also for the lives of Jonathan and his lovely wife.
And so begins a dangerous battle between the two great magicians, both of whom come at magic from differing angles. Can one overcome the other or will it take both of them, working in tandem, to defeat the ancient evil that is The Gentleman?
I have to say that I was a little sceptical about this TV series when it was first previewed before other programmes on the BBC. I guess I’ve always found most authors’ treatment of the subject of magic to be overly flamboyant, almost flippant, and therefore to be categorised under the general header: ‘for kids’; probably the best example of this theory of mine are the ‘Harry Potter’ books and films. But Susanna Clark has created a much more believable world of magic, more akin to the ritualistic ‘magick’ written about by the likes of Aleister Crowley, James Frazer and Montague Summers.
Clark has moulded a highly textured world full of mostly believable characters working within the social and gender politics of the time period, but more importantly a world of magic that feels a tad more realistic, in that everything done under that catchall name has a price, sometimes a very high one. And the BBC has captured that world very well, having created a sumptuous environment full of not only period detail, but also of shadows, shadows that could conceal something of danger and devilishment, remnants of a long forgotten mythical realm.
However, at its heart the series is all about two men rediscovering the art of the ancients, but both having very different views on what to do with their new-found knowledge once they’ve got it. Mr Norrell, the academic, wants to keep control of it, wants it to always be safe, while Mr Strange is of more of a ‘free-wheeling’ persuasion, who likes to take chances and see where things go, worrying about the destination when he gets there. This makes for an interesting dichotomy of ideas and results and keeps the drama quotient high.
The show is also about love, the love of a man for a woman, the love one sees between brothers at arms, and the love that comes with mutual respect between long-standing peers.
Throughout its seven episodes the standard of the performances, the set and costume design, the visual effects and the music score are all exceptionally high, and this, along with the captivating story, makes Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell must-see television.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has recently been released on DVD and Blu-ray and is being distributed by RLJ Entertainment.
Special features on the disc include a 25 minute ‘making of’ documentary that features lots of ‘talking heads’ mini-interviews regarding all facets of the production, several deleted scenes, which are all worth a look at; a few bloopers that involve cast members farting, a horse pissing in the background of a shot or the sound of a jet flying overhead; some visual effect shot breakdowns for the first couple of episodes; and picture galleries of both behind the camera (23 photos) and in front of the camera (40 photos) interest.