Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Ep. 1 (TV) Review

Magic is returning to England…  Thanks to the BBC.

The first of seven episodes based on the book by Susanna Clarke premiered Sunday, and reactions so far are pretty positive.

The story follows two magicians, the titular Mr. Norrell and his soon-to-be pupil Mr. Strange, as they attempt to return to England the very real magic she has somehow lost over the years. In Clarke’s Regency era England, magic is real…or rather, was real, and the theoretical study of sorcery is a respectable and gentlemanly pastime. Unfortunately for those who study it, real, practical magic hasn’t been done in over 300 years. That is, until Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange make an appearance.

Programme Name: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep1 (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Vinculus (PAUL KAYE) - (C) JSMN Ltd - Photographer: Matt Squire
Vinculus (PAUL KAYE) - (C) JSMN Ltd - Photographer: Matt Squire

While on first glance one might write this series off as simply Harry Potter for adults, it’s better to think of it as Blackadder meets Jane Austen with a splash of Gormenghast. There are plenty of powdered wigs, flowery dialogue and uncomfortable clothing, but there is a wit and humour to be found underneath the stuffy atmosphere and constricting corsets. Director Toby Haynes brings with him some experience with the supernatural, having directed episodes of Doctor Who and Being Human, so far the show seems to be right up his alley.

The casting so far seems to be fantastic, all the main characters come equipped with thick, Northern accents or posh and snarky London inflections. Eddie Marsan perfectly blends shy, introvert with the miserly egoism of Mr. Norrell, and from what little we’ve seen so far of Bertie Cavel’s Mr. Strange, he’s captured the charming but aimless high society rich boy with a heart of gold that audiences will quickly warm to. The supporting cast has really stepped up as well; Vincent Franklin’s Mr. Drawlight is exactly the foppish, flamboyant social sleazebag he’s written to be, and while we haven’t had time yet to really experience his partner in crime, John Heffernan’s Mr. Lascelles, his few lines are dripping with sarcasm and his facial expressions scream boredom and condescension.  Rounding out the major players are Charlotte Riley as Strange’s beautiful, intelligent take-no-shit wife Arabella, and Marc Warren as the sinister Gentleman with the thistledown hair- who’s hair, I might add, isn’t quite what is described in the book, but his menacing attitude makes up for it. There are a few other characters who make brief appearances, but haven’t really been introduced in full yet.

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 The Gentleman (MARC WARREN), Lady Pole (ALICE ENGLERT) - (C) JSMN Ltd - Photographer: Matt Squire
The Gentleman (MARC WARREN), Lady Pole (ALICE ENGLERT) - (C) JSMN Ltd - Photographer: Matt Squire

The sets are gorgeous, which isn’t a huge surprise considering the BBC’s history of excellent period dramas. They must have entire warehouses filled with wigs, candles and spare carriage equipment. We get a brief look at Mr. Norrell’s famous library, with its walls of dusty leather-bound books lit by endless candles and dreary English twilight, and the London of 1807 is both elegant and filthy depending on the scene.

For a series that is focused on magic, that is also constrained by the budget of a television show, there is a big risk that many of the spells may be hampered by cheesy special effects or cheap CGI. However, the very first spell cast in the show is one that brings a whole cathedral full of stone statues to life, and the team behind the scenes nailed it. The statues moved like you would expect them to without looking obviously animated and out of place. This bodes well for later on in the series as Mr. Norrell and Mr. Strange start to really up their magic game with some large-scale sorcery.

It is, after all, only the first episode, but as a massive fan of the book and an obnoxious “I won’t watch a show based on a book because books are always better” pretentious snob, I’m loving what I’ve seen so far. My only real complaint is that a lot of the dialogue seems overly expository.  Many lines feel unnatural and forced, only serving to enlighten the audience to the history of Clarke’s alternate universe England. But that’s to be expected when translating a 1,000-page book (with a plethora of footnotes) into a hour-long television show. I’m interested to see just how much of the fascinating world building Clarke has done can be shown in only seven episodes, but so far, so good.