My favorite TV pick from the past week is the magical fantasy miniseries, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell based on the novel by Susanna Clarke.
Imagine if you will early 19th century England devoid of magic for the past three centuries. The last English magician, the Raven King, apparently took it with him and since then magic has been studied, but not practiced. Then along comes a deranged street magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye) with a prophecy that two men are destined to bring magic back to England.
One of those men is pedantic, reclusive Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) who has a clear vision about making English magic respectable. (Imagine Hermoine Granger as an aging man.) He is also renowned for having the most extensive collection of books on the subject often to the point of hoarding them. He dismisses the prophecy as an insane man’s ramblings.
However, the other, an aimless young gentleman of property in search of a profession, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) embraces the revelation and undertakes to learn magic from the most learned magician in the country, Mr. Norrell, of course.
What begins as a teacher/apprentice relationship deteriorates into a battle of two magicians; one accomplished and cautious, the other blessed with raw talent and daring. When Jonathan is recruited by the British Army to help them defeat Napoleon with magic, his acclaim arouses both concern and jealousy in Mr. Norrell.
As Jonathan’s attitudes to magic veer further and further from his tutor’s, a feud between the two develops fueled by hangers-on with their own agendas. Only their common cause against a fairy known simply as “the gentleman”(Marc Warren) can reunite the two greatest magicians in England.
I particularly enjoyed the whimsical alternative history of this series with its references to English magic…which makes me question if each country has its own distinctive variety. As a person who works in a library, I could identify with Mr. Norrell’s attachment to his books. And the love story between Jonathan and his wife, Arabella, (Charlotte Riley) was touching and authentic.
As for the cast, I’ve been a fan of Eddie Marsan for some time so I expected his Mr. Norrell would be eccentrically excellent and he didn’t disappoint. Marc Warren has mastered the creepy, otherworldly vibe as a fairy whose main purpose is to cause havoc in the life of humans.
The most pleasant discovery was Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange. I took notice of this actor after seeing him as scheming Metropolitan Police Communications Deputy Finn Kirkwood in the police dramedy Babylon and then as a sympathetic Nick Clegg in the TV movie Coalition. However, Carvel’s portrayal of passionate novice magician Jonathan Strange, has made me an official fan. His enthusiasm is as contagious as his eventual despair.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell creates a multi-layered world that you’ll want to revisit; whether to pick up tidbits you missed on first viewing or merely to spend more time in that distinctive spellbinding world with its fascinating inhabitants.