Let’s face it, Harry Potter never really learned any magic at Hogwarts. J.K Rowling’s educational faculty could never have heard of a lesson plan; teachers merely said ‘do this without me digging into how’ and then were surprised when students accidentally made rat goblets and so on. You could argue that it isn’t dramatically interesting to get into the nuts and bolts of learning the practice of magic, but Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell beg to differ.
Based on the 2004 book of the same name by Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is what would happen if magic existed in the high society of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens novels, where status and respectability took as much of a center point as spells and Faerie lands. Using an alternate history and gothic past styling, Clarke created a world where English magic had been dominant and wild centuries ago but since disappeared from use. Through Mr Norrell (a learned gentleman hoarding books on magic) and Jonathan Strange (who suddenly finds himself able to do magic despite never learning how to do so) magic returns to Napoleonic-era England.
Don’t go in expecting whizz bang sound effects when it comes to magic. This 7 part adaptation of Clarke’s novel could, at first glance, be mistaken for Pride and Prejudice as we get introduced to a very male association of Yorkshire mid society gentlemen debating the nuances of academic theoretical magic. After an affronted Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) proves that he is the only man who can actually perform magic, he travels to London to shake off magic’s image as something for charlatans and fakes: he desires to make it respectable such that his way is the only way.
The story as adapted and directed by Toby Haynes must, by necessity, make some truncated timeline leaps as although Clarke’s novel was rightly praised for, among other things, being stuffed with backstory and detail, it is also a meaty 782 pages long. Talk of the mythical Raven King (despised by Norrell as exactly the wrong sort of English magic) peppers our introduction to the various cast as we get settled in to London life where hangers-on lurk and politicians worry about war.
Even though it may appear that little is happening at first, Haynes has cast the series excellently. Eddie Marsan (Mowgli) is the perfect choice for Norrell, managing to encapsulate the character’s shy academic mind hidden behind a stubborn insistence on respectability, whilst succumbing to pettiness, paranoia, and ultimately loneliness.
Bertie Carvel’s Strange, on the other hand, is less upper class and aloof (albeit aimless) than in the book. Instead, he is given more heart by Carvel’s performance, making us believe every moment of love for wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) and every moment of obsession by his newfound talent. When asked if it possible to kill a man with magic and he responds that “a magician might, but an gentleman never would”, his conviction is utterly believable.
Similarly wonderful is those who fall foul of Norrell’s action to restore English magic: a secret pact with a Fairy to resurrect the deceased wife of Lord Pole in order to gain favour in high society. With another fantastic piece of casting, Marc Warren as a ‘thistle down haired’ fairy fills the screen with a presence befitting an ancient and powerful being of magic.
His bargain with Norrell allows him to claim ‘half the life’ of Lady Emma Pole (Alice Englert), cursing her to spend her night dancing with the fairy in his dreams in his kingdom of Lost Hope. Englert’s decent into frustrated madness is passionately played, as is the clash between duty and personal freedom from Lord Pole’s black servant, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare) who also becomes cursed by the attention of Marc Warren’s ethereal spirit.
The stakes ramp up steadily through the 7 episode run to take in war, a jealous rift between Strange and Norrell, the fairy’s obsession with making Stephen become King, and Strange’s pursuit of darker and darker magic to achieve his desperate ends. All this is indelibly bound up in constantly discussed ‘Englishness’, where part Gothic fairy tale and part Austen society combine to create a wonderfully engaging story.
I’ve run out time to even praise the special effects, set design, score, or cinematography because as gorgeous as the show is the main draw really is these engaging characters. Come the closing moments where first names are finally used in a display of genuine conversation rather than societal norms, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell breathes soul into magic.
Words by Mike Record