Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Rating: 4 1/2 Stars
And now for something completely different. A TV review. I’ve finally managed to catch up with this series and just in time for the finale too!
I was a bit surprised when I saw that the BBC was doing this adaptation. I normally love the dramas that the BBC produces – they’re invariably high quality and have brilliant casts, locations and costumes – but they’re not necessarily known for their fantasy book adaptations. So in the run up to watching this I was a bit confused but very excited.
I should probably say right at the beginning that I have never read the book and I have no idea why. I’ve seen copies of it before, I’ve admired the simple and very striking cover art; but I’ve never picked it up or even read the blurb. More fool me. This is an oversight I intend to rectify as soon as possible.
I was unsure about it in the first episode – it was very much finding its feet and it didn’t seem to know what show it was meant to be. Period comedy of manners? Dark and spooky fantasy? Costume Drama? My Gram – who has possibly the broadest taste in TV Shows ever before seen in a 90 year old – has a liking for the weird and slightly uncanny so this should have been right up her street. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make it through the first episode because she thought it was too ‘daft’. I’ve a feeling the show lost quite a few viewers before it really got going and it’s a damn shame. I think what really surprised me when I heard the BBC were doing this adaptation, was that it was being broadcast at this time of year. I think it would have been much more suited to Autumn when the nights are drawing in and the dark atmosphere of Strange and Norrell would have fitted right in.
I persevered with it nevertheless, I felt like I had to – how many times has there been any decent Fantasy novel adaptations on British TV? After a bit of a mix up with the following episodes on Sky TV’s version of iplayer – I think it was either episode 2 or 3 refused to appear for download for ages – I was very much rewarded for my choice. It’s a brilliant series and I’m really looking forward to next week’s finale.
Over the episodes the plot really begins to build and you find yourself whisked along with it. I know some watchers are a bit bewildered by the prophecy – possibly because it’s only ever really sung/said in slightly mad sounding chunks – but I really like it. Not everything is as it seems and I’ve got a strong feeling that King George can sleep easy. It’s Marc Warren’s fantastically creepy ‘The Gentleman’ who should be watching his back. I’m really looking forward to the finale – as I’ve already said – because it feels like everything’s coming together for a big showdown. I’m just praying that the character’s I like manage to get out of it relatively unscathed and – hopefully – still largely sane.
The characters are brilliant and their development is actually completely believable. This is a testament to both the writing and the impressive cast – I’ve taken to watching it with the IMDB page open, after having to pause an episode to work out where I knew Wellington from. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bertie Carvel in a main role before but he does a sterling job as Strange and you find yourself really rooting for him and Arabella – the wonderful Charlotte Riley. Eddie Marsan – excellent as ever – is perfect as the peculiar and pernickety Mr Norrell, though I’m still not sure how to pronounce his name. Vincent Franklin also continues to delight as Drawlight – one of the most obsequious yet self-serving characters in existence. I like the ambiguity of Ariyon Bakare as Stephen Black, you’re never quite sure if he’s on the side of the Gentleman or English Magic. I suppose the answer is that he’s on his own side and I’m looking forward to him really grabbing his destiny by the horns in the next episode.
However, I must say that the two characters who have me really intrigued are not the main characters, but Lady Pole and Childermas.
Alice Englert is captivating as Lady Pole and I’ve added her to the list of actors whose presence would be enough to make me look twice at a film. Lady Pole’s a brilliant character, she suffers being used as something of a set-piece for English magic but she still retains her determination to be free. She’s a ‘madwoman’ on a mission and despite not being able to speak plainly she’s determined to be understood. You can’t help feeling that if everyone would just stop and listen to her she’d be able to save them all, so I was unreasonably excited when Jonathan Strange got her finger back. Here’s hoping that she can exact some well deserved vengeance in the finale!
On the other hand, Enzo Cilenti as Childermas is just awesome; he’s a servant who refuses to keep his place and at times appears to be the only sane one of the bunch. I like his form of magic, quiet and understated but perfect for his own purposes. I like that he’s the one who can see things that the ‘higher class’ of magicians can’t, that he understands the need for balance. I’ve heard tell that there could be a sequel in the works from Susanna Clarke, focusing on Childermas and some of the other side characters. Maybe Childermas and Lady Pole can just sit on the sidelines, rolling their eyes at the antics of the other magicians and getting on with things. Now that is a book that I would definitely read.
I’ve also got to say that the costumes are great and I really like the level of detail in the locations and the lighting. All the elements seem to come together so that it looks like a really, really good adaptation. So many Fantasy films look like the set’s about to fall over and the monsters will just disintegrate if you poke them, so I really have to take my hat off to the CGI here as well.
All in all, the only reason I’m not giving this 5 stars is the feeling of genre confusion in the first episode. Everything else is brilliant: spellbinding, wacky and weird. A real treat.