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Television Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (BBC; 2015)

For a longtime devotee and serial recommender of Susannah Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the prospect of any screen adaptation of this most absorbing and beguiling tale of magic and manners in the Early 19th Century England sparks excitement and trepidation in nearly equal measure. Excitement at witnessing the book given visual form, with sumptuous sets and costumes, handsome cinematography and computer effects, and idiosyncratic performances by observant actors. Trepidation at the inevitable pitfalls of adaptation, and the helpless petit morts of disappointments when some cherished narrative element, characterization, or mental image from the pages does not transfer with the proper alacrity to the screen.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has taken a long path from book to screen before landing at long last at the BBC, whose attractive if streamlined seven-part miniseries based on the novel and directed by Toby Haynes recently completed its broadcast run in the UK (BBC America is still in the midst of airing the weekly episodes in the U.S., while Space has the Canadian broadcast rights). New Line Cinema snapped up the movie rights and planned a big-screen version as an expansion of its post-Lord of the Rings profile as a fantasy genre powerhouse, but the project never proceeded beyond the screenwriting phase as other British fantasy literature adaptations like The Golden Compass flopped and New Line Cinema went belly-up and was swallowed by Warner Brothers. The BBC stepped into the breach in 2012 and produced the final adaptation, which at seven hours surely covers more of Clarke’s thick tome with a keener British eye, albeit with a lesser budget and weaker onscreen talent than Hollywood could probably have mustered.

strangeandnorrellHaynes’ television version has widescreen ambitions, but translates Clarke’s narrative surprising closely, at least to begin with (greater dramatic liberties creep in as the climax approaches, some of them of a dubious and cliched nature). That narrative concerns the titular gentlemen, who semi-reluctantly restore the public practice of magic in England in the early 1800s after it has lain dormant since the waning days of the Middle Ages. Clarke imagines a compelling but merely sketched alternate history of England in which magic and faeries play an important part. At the dark heart of this history is a legendary (and more than a little sinister) figure known as the Raven King, a magic-practicing monarch who ruled Northern England from Newcastle for 400 years before vanishing, perhaps into death, perhaps into another world. The heritage of his rule is still felt in the gothic moors of the northern shires, an ever-haunting mist of gloomy superstition set against the rational, imperial, and mercantile modern state of London and the South.

The historical-fantasy events related take place between 1806 and 1817, as England struggles against Napoleon on the continent. The wealthy reclusive landowner and scholar Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is coaxed out of seclusion by a Yorkshire society of “theoretical magicians”; “theoretical” because they’ve read about magic in books (though not many good ones, as Norrell has ravenously bought them all up) but never performed acts of magic themselves. Norrell claims to be able to do magic, and is convinced by Society members John Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Mr. Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) to hazard a demonstration. Norrell obliges, bringing the carven stone statues inside the cathedral church of York Minster to sudden, jabbering life for the amazed members of the Society (this first instance of the magical is milked for atmospherics in the dim grandeur of the Minster). This public return of the practice of magic to England brings Norrell to overnight prominence, although it ends the operations of the York Society, part of the exacting Norrell’s desire to control the practice of and discourse around magic in the country as completely as possible.

Norrell arrives to great fanfare in London with the expressed intent of restoring English magic to a more respectable and modern place in society, in contrast to the wild and dangerous magic of the Raven King, whose magical practices Norrell despises and finds unsuitable to the modern context. Accompanied by his grim, tarot-card-toting servant Childermass (the excellently sneering Enzo Cilenti), the bookish, peevish Norrell has trouble establishing himself and magic in London society at first, but scene gadflies Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) and Lascelles (John Heffernan) soon usher him into the proper circles. He gains the attention and the trust of the government when he effects the miraculous resurrection of Lady Pole (Alice Englert), the fiancee of minister Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) who has tragically died shortly before their wedding. Unfortunately, in order to raise her from the dead and gain the influence and notice for his magic that he so craves, Norrell must call upon forces of magic that have been long kept out of the human world, and for good reason.

Meanwhile, an amiable but aimless country gentleman named Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) quite accidentally (or perhaps not so) happens upon a travelling street magician named Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who sells him some magic spells which Strange then performs with the élan of an unschooled natural. Strange and his newlywed wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) are soon ensconced in London, where Strange becomes the pupil of Norrell in a partnership that will prove extremely tumultuous as well as decisive for the course of magic in England. The two magicians of very different temperments and outlooks will become embroiled in the struggle against Napoleon, against each other, and against a powerful foe from the land of Faerie with thistle-down hair and a certain sartorial strangeandnorrell1flair (Marc Warren), who has eyes for Lady Pole, for Sir Walter’s African butler Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), and for Arabella, and will not let two English magicians stand in his way.

Even such a detailed plot summary barely scratches the surface of what makes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell such a rare delight on the page. Clarke combines a Dickensian flair for eccentric character (especially with figures like the sycophantic fop Drawlight, played with impeccable smarm by Franklin, who adds the canny detail of Frenchifying the pronunciation of his magician patron’s name: “Nor-relle!”) with a mordant, dry wit in her narrative voice, an impeccable and endlessly clever pastiche of Jane Austen’s recognizable free indirect speech. If it sounds a bit old-fashioned in literary terms, it both is and isn’t. Clarke’s book is a tremendously bookish read, full of nested narratives and illustrative anecdotes from magical history that are often self-reflexive if not necessarily post-modern. Many of these are contained in her wonderful footnotes, which sometimes take precedence over the main text itself but generally act as tangents from the main story that are at the same time illuminating and obscuring, distracting and deepening (Strange, for example, is introduced in a footnote before he ever appears in the narrative proper).

Her use of magic is also a marvel. Unlike the wand-pointing and Latin spell-declaiming of the Harry Potter universe to which Clarke’s world has been (unproductively) compared to, magic in Strange & Norrell is unsettling and unpredictable, an uneasy and sometimes imperceptible warping of the rhythms of the quotidian world. It manifests as an invisible smoke, in the reflections of mirrors and the language of birds, emerging out of dusty libraries and busy city squares like a secret door being opened for only a fraction of a second. Even the ampersand in the title seems like an unfamiliar rune, a mystery separating the two magicians. Magic is a digression from the “real” world, a match for her self-aware literary voice in telling her story.

It should be fairly clear from the outset that no visual medium, with its stark representational requirements, can approximate such purely literary devices, such purposely, artfully vague and suggestive descriptions. Images, dialogue, and tics of actors’ performances must perform similar functions, or broad, brief strokes of them at least, and that is what Haynes’ Strange & Norrell does. It frequently does a very impressive job of this. This miniseries is handsomely shot and miraculous lit. The period-recreation sets bristle with details both immersive and symbolically suggestive. The special effects are well-rendered and effectively used if noticeably restrained in comparison to blockbuster films, although the appearance of misty rain ships off the French coast or galloping horses conjured from sand are couched as showy spectacle rather than with Clarke’s nuanced diminishment of magic’s effectiveness (Strange’s spells in particular have a habit of getting out of his control and becoming a mischievous nuisance in the book).

“Your cravat is beautifully starched, but I shall still have to kill you horribly, I’m afraid.”

Both Carvel and Marsan are dedicated and mostly beyond reproach in their embodiment of the titular magicians. Marsan’s peevish, self-serious Norrell glowers in his library with his old-fashioned wig (it almost deserves its own cast credit, especially after its suffering in the finale), tugged between Childermass’s underworld knowledge of magic doings and the increasingly manipulative influence of Lascelles but occasionally capable of a wide, infectious impish grin at an unexpected display of magic by Strange. He’s a putative dictator of magic in the nation, naturally suspicious of rivals and even of his talented pupil for reasons that are never quite elucidated in Peter Harness’s script but that aren’t hard to fathom given Marsan’s characterization of the inherently fearful little man. Carvel, with his uneven hair and careless grin, represents a telling contrast. His eccentricity (and incipient madness) aligns him with the haphazard, hidden world of magic more closely than does Norrell’s prim, cranky bookishness, and makes the Raven King a much more fascinating figure to him. The younger Strange carries much more of the action than does Norrell, and whether bantering with Lord Wellington or the mad King George III or defending himself on the battlefield of Waterloo with desperate magic, Carvel seems ever in his element.

The supporting cast, however, is considerable less so, suffering from the relative compression of the material and flattened characterization as well as from casting less prominent talents for a more marginal television production. Riley’s Arabella is not such a clever, enticing partner for Strange as on the page, and their separation and his quest to get her back is rendered in much more conventional tragic romance terms (they also sleep in the same bed, which plays into an important plot point but is wholly unbelievable for anyone with any knowledge of the upper-class marriage conventions of the period). Cilenti and Kaye are pretty great together (and are at the centre of the closest thing to a sequel stinger that the series can manage), as are Warren and Bakare, although the latter lacks in general as Stephen.

Something rather substantial is missing from the gentleman with thistle-down hair as Harness writes him and as Warren plays him, however. On screen, Warren plays the troublesome faerie as consistently imperious and sinister, every inch the obvious villain at every moment. He becomes serious at times in the book, but when he does Clarke describes him “putting on grave and important looks quite unlike his usual expression”. Warren is always putting on grave and important looks, and his mercuriousness, his changeability, his fundamental faerie-ness, is entirely lost. It’s an important mistake, and as a result the character not only feels wrong to the book reader but distinctly single-note to the neophyte to the material.

While the television miniseries context makes for a less truncated narrative, its more limited set of resources dials back the ambition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in what will surely be its definitive screen version. A Hollywood blockbuster take on the material, even one extended over an unlikely two or three films, could very well make many of the same debatable adaptation choices and character missteps as were made here. It may well have butchered other elements as well, while not getting nearly as much right as this Haynes version does. Despite my misgivings there is plenty of good here; this is not at all an unreasonable or unrecognizable screen version of Clarke’s book, and is in fact a frequently entertaining one made with real craft and verve and respect for the source (which one hopes will gain new readers via the show, as it is by far the superior work). Still, there remains a small but unavoidable sense of mild despondency when considering that this is the only Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell screen version that lovers of the book will get. As good as it mostly is, there is often something missing that diminishes the magic.

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