Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Episode 1 Review - The Friends of English Magic

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
It's 1806, and magic has been dead in England for hundreds of years. So says the estimable Learned Society of York Magicians, but this declaration is turned on its head by the arrival of a powerful, fearsome practical magician, Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan). He offers them a deal: if he can make good on his claims to do real magic, then they must relinquish any right to study magic themselves. The ultimatum is a massive piece of foreshadowing. Norrell's success does not allow for sharing. He's not interested in democracy (of course not, he isn't one of those blasted French Republicans, is he?)

Admittedly, the competition is not very stiff. There are plenty of charlatans, and the few that aren't are limited to a spell or two. It is unclear whether Vinculus (Paul Kaye) is the former or the latter. When Norrell flees his first claustrophobic experience of London society he runs straight into the arms of ragged Vinculus, who delivers an incoherent prophecy about another magician in England. Who could it be? Wisely, the adaptation introduces this second magician earlier than the book, and it's no surprise that he's the other titular character: Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel).

Strange is performing his first simple feat of magic while Norrell is summoning up a fairy gentleman (the ever eerie Marc Warren, who has appeared in Poirot, Band of Brothers, and The Hogfather) to resurrect a prominent politician's fiancée (y'know, like you do). The act will cement his reputation as England's go-to magician, but like most enchantments, there's always a catch...

Let's start by saying the cast is terrific. Eddie Marsan, who has always looked a bit like a smug turtle, is smugger than ever here. I would really say his performance is my favorite (and acting is good all-round). He's a million miles away from his other notable roles - Norrell lacks the bluster of Pancks in Little Dorrit or the blue-collar heartiness of Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes (not to mention the wild ramblings of the mad prophet in The New World). I think his (mostly) understated performance will form a solid anchor to the series.

Meanwhile, Enzo Cilenti makes for a smoldering Childermass. Norrell's reticent servant is the real mover and shaker in the campaign to bring magic back to England. Cilenti turns up the Aragorn, sulking around in corners, propping up his booted feet on a table while smoking a long pipe. He makes for a suitably mysterious and sinister henchman.

He's about the sexiest member of the cast, who, to put it in period drama terms, are far more in the Pride and Prejudice 95 line than the Pride and Prejudice and Keira Knightley line. But that's a good thing. This is a miniseries geared towards fans of the book: those patient enough to slog through pages and pages of scholarly tedium in order to enjoy its dry wit and complex alternate history. In other words, the type to look for P&P 95. My type. Mr. Norrell's type.

If anyone was going to be the handsome one, it would have been young Jonathan Strange, but Carvel's Strange is a horsey, lanky aristocrat, stumbling around in the plot of a missing Austen novel. He romances the sensible (and certainly handsome) clergyman's daughter, Arabella Woodhope (Charlotte Riley), promising to mend his flaws  and become an upstanding member of society . The whole Gothic magic thing is fun, but Strange's romcom life is a good counterbalance to the fairly grim Norrell storyline.

I'm not entirely sold on the CGI. It looks great for a small-screen production, but the simple stuff still seems to pack more punch. Marc Warren's Gentleman is disturbing, but I wonder if the effects they use to make his voice more menacing will become distracting as the series goes on (the guy really does sound creepy enough as it is).

One last thing: the Yorkshire accents are great. I mean, I'm an ignorant American so I wouldn't know if they weren't great, but I love hearing from the different bits of the U.K., and committing to a series like this means I'll be able to internalize the sound and add it to my ever-growing list of British accents to use when I'm on the run from the FBI (for instance, Broadchurch did this for Dorset, Life on Mars for Manchester.)

My review of next week's episode: How Is Lady Pole?



  1. . . . clergyman's daughter, Arabella Woodhope

    I thought sister.
    Thanks for letting me know this show exists. A bit strange, but the good ones always are. Looking forward to the rest.

    1. Both. Her father was a clergyman, as is her brother Henry. I just finished the book. It was really good, though it could be a slog at times. It could easily pass for a novel written in that period.

    2. I heard the book was an immersive experience. Where do you find the time to do everything?

    3. I've been out of school for two weeks. I've got an internship lined up for this summer, but we still haven't lined when I'm working, so I've basically been doing nothing but enjoying the summer. Anyway: I just buckled down and charged through about seventy-so pages each day. And after all, I read Les Mis in 16 days a few years ago. Everything else is a breeze.

  2. How funny; I'd never put it together that Marc Warren was actually the actor who played Blithe in Band of Brothers (I've obviously seen him in Poirot and Marple, but I associate him primarily with *Hustle*). They weren't hurting for Brits in that production; such a brilliant show.

    1. I first noticed him in Terry Pratchett's Hogfather. He played an assassin named Mr. Teatime ("pronounced Tay-ah-ty-may.") Not my favorite Discworld adaptation (that would be Going Postal, with Charles Dance, David Suchet, Richard Coyle, and Claire Foy), but he was a real stand-out.

      I wish I'd liked Band of Brothers more. I know it was supposed to be more of a historical piece than a drama, but I wish there'd been a bit more plot to sink my teeth into. I should probably revisit it. On the other hand: one of the characters - Shifty Powers, I think - used to attend our local VFW. It's a small world.


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