TV Must Watch: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

norrell strange

The tome that is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been weighing down my bookshelf a few years now, and let me tell you, it’s a hefty one. Counting at over 800 pages, the novel is charming us with its dedication to minutiae noted by ample footnotes and intimate descriptions of a Dickensian world that heaves under frilly dresses and Napoleonic wars. And then there is the issue of *magic*.

It asks questions – does magic exist and if so, what would it be used for? And more importantly, in which manner? – setting the tale of fantasy in an alternate 19th century, in which magic existed, and is about to be awakened by two prophesied magicians.

Initially, magic is only in the domain of scholars, historians if you may, who do not possess the ability to exercise any magical power. That is, until the bookish Norrell emerges, and he represents the opposite of what a magician should be: a dry, middle-aged man, obsessed with collecting and curating knowledge, and acquiring power.

At the same time, a young, gifted, vibrant Jonathan Strange comes onto the scene, and he derives his magic from a down-and-dirty source: the folklore of the Raven King, dipped in elven, forbidden allure of ungentlemanly magics.

The two not only revive magic, but team up in order to help England win the war, yet the methods of the two become so divergent, and as Norrell’s influence and desire for control grow, they increasingly clash with Strange’s natural ability and wondrous flair. The question of what makes a gentleman, and the vastly differing definitions of morality and Englishness, are thoroughly explored in this collage that relies on intricate knowledge of Jane Austen, Dickens, and Romantic authors.

Suzzanna Clarke’s novel entered a somewhat familiar space, one perfected by giants such as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, yet Clarke adopted a slightly different approach to spinning her narrative.

Instead of immersing us simply in the adventures of our protagonists, she offers an in-depth scholarship of magic history, peppering the novel with footnotes and details that make the tome somehow more scholarly and realistic.

In 2004, Clarke won the Man Booker Prize and in 2005, she scooped up the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

No wonder that when hearing about the adaptation of the Susana Clarke’s award-winning novel into a small-screen wonder, I had my reservations, but as per usual, the British made the seemingly impossible into a highly entertaining, amazingly feasible, and magical, producing a wondrous and enchanting series.

Just as with successful adaptations of Pratchett’s books into miniseries, so is the BBC1 treatment of Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell successful at tackling this impossibly complex novel.

The seven-part miniseries premiered on May 17th, and stars Eddie Marsan as Norrell, Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange, and a whole slew of wonderful supporting cast members.

Director Toby Haynes, known for his work on Doctor Who, Five Days, and Being Human, does a masterful job at convivially depicting the lush 19th century period drama, with just a smidgeon of well-executed, yet simple effects that allow us to fully immerse in the story, and is a well-known fan of the book.

The miniseries is an absolute must-watch, offering that rare combination of romantic, gothic drama, with a smidgeon of the strange, the funny, the tyrannical, and the morose, all wrapped in a fine, silken robe.