Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2015) is a seven-episode fantasy TV show based on the novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It is available widely for purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray from Acorn, iTunes, Amazon Video, and more.
I can’t say that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy, but I can say that for people who do like fantasy, it’s certainly a good one. A seven-hour epic based on the book of the same title, this television series follows that magical adventures of Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a gentleman who believes a man under a hedge when he tells him he will be a magician. He seeks and is almost immediately granted apprenticeship under Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), a Yorkshire magician who has recently relocated to London in effort to offer his magical services to the crown during the war. Regrettably, although Norrell is able to teach Mr. Strange the tricks of the trade, he is not able to instill in him the morals of “English magic.” The more you watch the show, the more you begin to suspect that Mr. Norrell’s morals are an invention all his own and that the only true magic is dark magic, that is, the Raven King’s magic. At least, that’s what Jonathan Strange suspects.
The Raven King, like Norrell, was a man of northern England, and perhaps he was not a man at all. He lives on in myths and…a book. There are many books in this program–Norrell’s library, Norrell’s own book, Strange’s own book–but strangest of all is the book of the Raven King, played by Paul Kaye. He prophesies the return of the king, but if this show teaches us one thing, it’s that ancient prophesies are no match for modern technology and modern foolishness. Books are an important part of magic, and it is amusing to note that when Norrell tries to rid the world of Strange’s book, the publisher comes after Norrell to pay the cost in advertising they’d spent on it. Actually, there are quite a few witty lines. The faerie says, “Stephen, what are you doing in that tiny room?” Mr. Norrell says, “We’ve channeled all of English magic into a butler?!”
Like all fantasies, there is an absurd number of characters. Strange’s story is one of the eternal love he has for his wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley). Norrell’s is the story of keeping English magic respectable and out of the hands of common folk (or indeed anyone but himself). The most interesting story of all, though, is that of Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), the butler to the Pole household who becomes entangled in a faerie world of slavery and kingship. The faerie in question is the gentleman (Marc Warren, who can be both creepy and hilariously incredulous), who can’t content himself with kidnapping just one person. After Mr. Norrell permits him to abduct Lady Pole (Alice Englert), he also lures in Stephen and Arabella. Now it’s up to Strange to get his wife back by any means necessary, even those that are not up to Mr. Norrell’s “respectable” standards.
Budget, setting, costume, art design, and special effects win the prize here. Attention to detail really sets the mood: when the gentleman faerie is in the room, the floorboards creek as though they were on a ship out at sea. The writing is fine, it’s expected fantasy with intriguing comments on our regular lives. The cast is also superb. In addition to those mentioned here, supporting cast like Samuel West, Lucinda Dryzek, and the morphable Vincent Franklin really bring the talents of author Susanna Clarke to life.
Jaime Pond is the editor of Anglonerd.com. She lives and works in NYC. Follow her on Twitter.