Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Review
At once familiar but altogether very different
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell started life as a fantasy/alternate history crossover novel by author Susanna Clarke and was long thought un-filmable. However if Tolkien can be adapted so can Clarke, and even though there have been rumours of a film for years, no two/three hour epic could ever do justice to the enigmatic prose of the book. No, there was only ever one option: a TV series. And only two companies could ever hope to provide the richness of production: HBO or the BBC. And it was the BBC, the company famed for its period dramas, who decided to take the plunge in a delicious seven part retelling of the book.
Famed for their detail and production values when it comes to period dramas the BBC have gone all-out to bring to life nineteenth century London with costumes, sets and designs that rival the very best productions. The writing and directing duties, handled by Peter Harness and Toby Haynes respectively, have been sympathetic to the original prose and managed to capture that inner sense of being, nature and attitude that made the novel so compelling, and in doing so have crafted a show the breathes. Pacing is very deliberate and the whole series builds throughout.
The fact it was shot in seven parts is crucial, giving the series the room it needs to explore a world where magic exists and practicing magicians as well as faeries and kings live, roam and do battle. Special mention must go to the casting, as every choice seems absolutely spot on to their respective character written in the book – and the result is spellbinding; managing to capture the books’ essence and resonating with long-time fans and acquiring new ones along the way.
The tale takes place during the Napoleonic Wars; magic, real magic not conjuring tricks, has been lost to England for three hundred years and no-one knows why. Secret organisations meet to discuss and debate, but to practice is a lost art. That is until Mr Norrell, a reclusive, reticent, quietly arrogant, but brilliant Practicing Magician comes to London to aid in the Government’s war efforts. However, once there he comes across a prophecy, to wit he learns of another practicing Magician, Jonathan Strange, dashing, though quirky and unfocused; the two are at odds – one self-taught and rigorous, the other natural.
The series follows their intertwined fortunes after Mr Norrell, in hoping to gain favour, bargains with the dark side and thus unwittingly sets their fates on a dangerous path - battles erupt as their obsession and meddling with the darker arts causes more trouble than they could ever predict. The story is at once familiar but altogether very different and the skill is in the character motivations leading to huge investment by the audience. The world they inhabit is, again, both familiar but different, with language, actions and desires making for a very watchable, compelling and enjoyable show.
To say any more will spoil the fun of the piece, save to say it follows very closely to the book narrative and manages to capture that peculiar sense of being, that made it so compelling, as such the show itself becomes riveting viewing.
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