JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL: “The Friends of English Magic”

Spells! Ravens! Wigs! Your new summer obsession has arrived in BBC America’s sumptuous adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel.

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me, the second shall long to behold me…

–The Prophecy of the Raven King

In a cramped drawing room in York, the Society of Magicians are facing a dilemma. For centuries, magic — in the practical sense — has been gone from England; these men are only “theoretical” magicians, studying the texts that make up their laughably meager library. “Practical magic is unseemly,” one of them says, but the real reason is that they just can’t perform it, and don’t know why. But now another, the young, idealistic Mr. Segundus (Edward Hogg), brings news that hits them like a lightning bolt out of a clear sky: there is a man, in Yorkshire, who purports to be “quite a tolerable, practical magician.” If he can follow through on that claim, their lives will be shaken to their foundations.

These are the opening pages of Susanna Clark’s vibrant doorstop of a novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, published in 2010 at 800 pages, most of which included elaborate footnotes connecting the web of history, lore and in-world publications within the story. Its joy was in its density, as it presented an elaborate alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars with magical touchstones and the dry wit of Jane Austen. Obviously I adored the novel, and I’ve been hotly anticipating this miniseries ever since it was announced. But I won’t turn these recaps into a series of comparisons — if the first episode is any indication, this is going to be a lot of fun. The only thing that might be a concern is the pacing: with so much story, even seven episodes will be a tight squeeze for writer/producer Peter Harness. But the tone and spirit are right, which are all that matter right now.

First: the casting, which is pitch-perfect across the board. Our two magicians — destined for great and terrible things, together, though neither fully realizes that yet — are played by Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel, and both performances are as sharp and idiosyncratic as if they’ve stepped right off the pages. As Mr. Norrell, Marsan (The World’s End, Sherlock Holmes) is bookish and inwardly-focused to a fault; he has the air of a lifelong nerd who finds himself thrust into the spotlight, but is only pretending he didn’t want it. For Norrell also has pride, and jealously guards magic from those he deems unworthy to study it. When Segundus and another “magician,” Mr. Honeyfoot, call on Norrell in his library at Hurtfew, they are nearly apoplectic at its size.

Yet even when given permission to examine any books within reach, Norrell can’t help but criticize their selections. Most of these historians, he believes, just don’t know what the heck they’re talking about. Then, you have to ask, why does he keep them in his library? Partially because he’s an obsessive completist, but also because he feels that in the wrong hands, even uninformed books of magic could cause harm. Magic is a dangerous thing to wield, and takes great strain. He doesn’t have to leave his study to make the statues of York come to life, but the effort leaves him exhausted. (It also wouldn’t do for the Society of “Magicians” to see weakness. He’s a gentleman and a professional, after all.)

Having forced the Society to rescind their titles and disband (save Mr. Segundus), Norrell’s butler/assistant, the laconic Childermass (Enzo Cilenti, Wolf Hall) brings him to London so he can unveil himself to the world. Childermass himself is a fascinating character, who seems perpetually on the verge of boredom but harbors abilities of his own, and has the unusual freedom to boss his master around. Norrell dispatches him around the city to do his dirty work, like buy up all the magical books in stores and threaten other so-called magicians, but it’s also Childermass who sets Norrell’s appearances at different social functions around London — claustrophobic, loud parties which drive the introverted Norrell, who wanders the stairwells without anyone recognizing him, almost to insanity. Yet he makes a couple of friends, sort of, in Drawlight and Lascelles; Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) is an obnoxious social striver who sees Norrell as his ticket to great public standing and a life of ease, and casts himself as Norrell’s own “John the Baptist” — he can’t even stop himself from rolling the “R’s” in “Norrell,” because it makes him sound more posh. The taciturn Lascelles (John Heffernan) we know less about.

p02r7wd4Meanwhile, in Shropshire, we meet Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel, Les Miserables). He’s a relatively young man in love with a woman named Arabella (Charlotte Riley, Edge of Tomorrow), who is the sister of the local clergyman. Strange has got to clean up his act before she’ll agree to marry him, so he’s given up cards and other bad habits — but not drinking, of course. Don’t be silly. The biggest piece is for him to find a profession, but he’s given up on everything he’s tried, and his mean-spirited father refuses to give his “layabout son” any help finding work “while I am yet living.” But delightfully, that only lasts until the following morning: now his father is dead of a chill, and Strange can focus all his energies on managing the estate that will now be his. It’s not likely to bring him any fulfillment, but it’s a start, and he leaves the graveside with a smile.

Back in London, Norrell is tired of attending parties and decides to go straight to the Secretary of War, a Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West), with a proposal to let him use magic to assist in the fight against Napoleon, which the British are currently losing. But Norrell has no charisma or flair; he has the uncanny ability to make even the most fantastical of subjects sound deathly boring, and Pole’s not interested. All he’s heard is what Norrell has supposedly done to amuse some housewives in York (like most in London, he has the details wrong, and it’s probably the rumor-churning Drawlight to blame for that), and how is that going to help with the war? It’s “not respectable.” Crushed, Norrell readies himself to return home. No one is interested in real magic, he thinks, or even understands it. Drawlight pleads with him to stay and just perform a bit, show some theatricality, and that’ll get the government’s interest, but Norrell takes magic too seriously to debase himself that way.

It’s no surprise he has no patience for a man like Vinculus (Paul Kaye, Thoros on Game of Thrones), a vagabond “street magician” who babbles nonsensically about prophecies from the Raven King. “Two magicians will appear in England,” it begins. Norrell is obviously one, but who is the other? “The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction.” Okay, that’s dark. “The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache; the second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy‚Äôs hand.” There’s also a bit about a “nameless slave” and “a silver crown,” but Norrell has heard quite enough. The Raven King was a charlatan, he shouts like a stubborn child, and in any case he’s been gone for 300 years. Furious, he sends Childermass, armed with a couple of spells, to get Vinculus out of town, but Childermass would rather chat and lay out homemade fortune cards; then Vinculus turns the deck, and plays for Norrell: all cards show the King. “The Raven is coming,” he says with glee. “His spell has already been cast.”

Later, Vinculus appears to a baffled Strange, popping out from beneath a hedge as Strange rides by. He repeats the same prophecy — “You do not make it sound very appealing,” Strange replies, dryly. “Choose someone else.” But he’s curious enough to buy the two spells Norrell intended to be used on Vinculus: A Spell To Get A Certain Man Out of London, and A Spell To See What My Enemy Is Doing. Arabella thinks the whole thing is probably nonsense, no matter what “the man under the hedge” has to say, but sure — let’s try a spell? Why not? Even Arabella’s brother, the priest, wants Strange to try. So he lackadaisically collects a bowl and some other elements: mark a circle with your finger here, mutter an incantation, and — woah! There’s a vision in the bowl… a man! We know it’s Norrell, but the best Strange can guess is that his “enemy” is a banker of some kind. But “at least I am a magician,” Strange says proudly, and it seemed to come incredibly easily, considering how hard Norrell and everyone else has to work for it.

Mr. Norrell, for his part, has one last opportunity to get attention, and it comes under unfortunate circumstances: Miss Wintertowne, the sickly fiancee of Sir Walter Pole, has passed. It might be time to bring out the big guns, and raise her back to life, something that hasn’t been done in centuries. It’s dangerous, obviously, both for him and for the subject (“What could be worse than being dead?” Lascelles gawks), because it involves summoning a faerie. Faeries, Norrell has said earlier, are “a poisonous race,” and anyone who gets their help always regrets it. But this is a desperate time — it’s either this, or return to Yorkshire and spend the rest of his days in solitude (which, to be honest, doesn’t sound so bad, but Norrell has too much pride to not receive the acclaim he believes he’s owed.)

Surprisingly, Pole agrees to let Norrell try, so Norrell goes to the girl at her deathbed and prepares to work, alone. Before long, the candles flicker, and there’s a gentleman standing before him: a faerie, with thistle-down hair. (He’s played by Marc Warren, last seen as the evil Rochefort on The Musketeers, and he is IDEAL casting here.) He’ll bring Miss Wintertowne back to life, alright, but what does he get in return? “Perhaps I would do better to speak to the other one?” he asks, absent-mindedly. Norrell doesn’t know what the Gentleman is talking about, but already he and Strange are being drawn together like magnets. It’s Norrell’s actions tonight that open up a can of worms that may be too great for both of them.

“I’m in need of new companions,” the Gentleman continues. So he haggles with Norrell for “half” the girl’s life. How long is that? Let’s say she lives another 75 years, so half of that. The deal is struck, and Miss Wintertowne awakens with a scream. Yet when the others rush in, she’s in a strangely excellent mood, and only wants to dance… yet she’s missing a pinky finger, which the Gentleman has taken as a token of their bargain. Norrell and Childermass leave the Pole home, deep in thought and worry. What are the odds that this won’t backfire in some huge way?

Each episode of this miniseries is directed by Toby Haynes, who’s spent time on Doctor Who and Sherlock, among other things. He utilizes a style that’s a mix of traditional historical drama with active handheld shooting, particularly on the Strange scenes; the filmmaking conveys the contrasting styles of the two magicians, who will finally meet next week. The budget may be small, compared to its premium cable brethren, but so far the effects — like the statues of York, which were fortunately shrouded in shadow — do the job, and the color palette, with deep blues and greens, is unlike anything else on TV. It’s a tough, tough adaptation, and it’s clear why it took so long to come together: how can you convey the depth of the world without relying heavily on narration, or bogging down the storytelling? Over the next six weeks, I can’t wait to see how they pull it off.

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