Adapted by Peter Harness from Susanna Clarke’s best-selling novel of the same name, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a seven-part historical fantasy that premiered on BBC One. The network is known for its costume dramas, but does Strange & Norrell deliver more than just fancy corsets, factual accuracy and a bit of clever CGI?
Set in England during the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century, the series presents an alternative history where magic is widely acknowledged but rarely practiced. Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan), a magician famed for his abilities, is persuaded to travel to London to help in the war against France. In order to gain much needed political backing for magic, Norrell encounters a leading member of the government and conjures up a fairy to bring the minister’s fiancee back to life. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is told by a street magician that he’s destined to study magic and become a great of the dying art.
Marsan, fresh from several great film performances, depicts the enigmatic Mr Norrell fittingly. It is the fluent Carvel, however, who stands out in the series, particularly towards the end when it darkens and becomes quite moving. Carvel’s career has mainly focused on theatre, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Strange & Norrell is the break he needed to burst into British cinema.
Although it begins slowly, the series picks up when Strange is introduced and thrust directly into the brutal and unforgiving Napoleonic war. The steady start may put some viewers off, but it does allow them to acquaint themselves with the protagonists and their eccentricities.
The audience could be lured into thinking the series is nothing more than a standard costume drama about magic, but it soon transitions into something utterly exhilarating, with darkness and poignancy, particularly during the latter stages.
Strange & Norrell is carried out well by series director Toby Haynes, who presents the alternative landscape naturally and realistically, even educationally. Of course, he’s helped by the imagination of the author and her deft use of the Napoleonic wars, as well as superb costume and set design.
The series’ climax seemed to tee up a second series, but the BBC are yet to confirm that, although the show has achieved enough to deserve it. The performances of Marsan and Carvel, and the extraordinary storyline, should immerse most viewers and convince the network to commission a second chapter.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is out now on Blu-ray and DVD