Two episodes were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
Trading Triwizard tournaments for tricorn hats and powerful wands for powdered wigs, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell makes its American broadcast debut this Saturday. The road from print to BBC One miniseries (with a one month delay in arriving on BBC America) has been long for Strange & Norrell and its decidedly proper spin on the fantasy genre. With a zoological expedition back into the world of Harry Potter due next year, and Lev Grossman’s arch The Magicians getting its own series shortly, we’ll soon be at no loss for witchcraft and wizardry stories that skew strongly traditional or deconstructionist. All the better for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell that the adaptation arrive now, then, when its measured and peculiar brand of wonderment isn’t at constant risk of being upstaged.
A decade of stop-start work on a film adaptation may have bedeviled fans of the original book, but there’s scarcely been a better time for Susanna Clarke’s 800-page tome to make its audio-visual debut. Adapting a work of this size for a single (or, more likely, multiple) 2-hour feature(s) would be a difficult enough task on its own. But as is the case in the world of Strange & Norrell, what few genuine successes exist in the realm of magic often find themselves outnumbered by their imposters. With Harry Potter’s swan song having been immediately followed by Peter Jackson’s three-round victory lap through Tolkien, cinemas haven’t been lacking for 800-pound gorillas of literary fantasy, or imitators trying, and failing to fabricate their success.
Fittingly for the Potter and Hobbit-less landscape it’s entering into, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell takes place in a world that’s bereft of magic. It’s to the benefit of the adaptation itself, and its two title characters, that modest offerings shine brightest in the absence of more dazzling competition. Not that the miniseries doesn’t seek to inspire amazement: in select moments, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell can put on a show that would rival many big screen budgets. But it’s the period milieu and offbeat style of Clarke’s world that will benefit most from the added breathing room afforded by a 7-part miniseries.
With an enterprising Frenchman knocking at the door and the empire’s nest looking empty since the colonies moved out, the Britain of 1806 in which Strange & Norrell takes place is as miserable as the weather. About the only thing separating Clarke’s version of history from Britain’s own is that magic was once an accepted and widely known part of English culture. Its absence for the last 300 years makes the subject a hobby for study amongst obsessives, and a sign of Britain’s waning glory to others.
Enter our two titular characters, the reserved Norrell (Eddie Marsan) and rakish Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), two conjurers from differing schools of magical thought. The older, bookish Norrell is the wiser of the pair, though his decades of experience in the dark arts have convinced him that magic ought be as respectable as its wielder. It’s a philosophy that doesn’t jibe with Strange, a natural for the supernatural whose newly discovered abilities have him communing with spirits mere days after turning a mirror into a prototype Facetime. Theirs quickly becomes an odd couple pairing of the sort you might expect, with long-dormant traditions of the craft being updated or disregarded in the name of the war effort.
The faithfulness of writer Peter Harness’ treatment of the source material will be lost on anyone who hasn’t read Clarke’s novel, though they’ll likely be too busy trying not to get lost, period, to worry about what purists might have to say. Through the first two hours, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s greatest strength is its madcap pace. You don’t get the sense that Harness is desperately trying to cram in as much from the book as he can. Rather, Clarke credits her audience with having at least some familiarity with genre standards, and thus builds a world that’s equally up to speed.