Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a Magical Delight

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Jonathan Strange Norrell BBC Sussana Clarke Critical Blast

Once upon a time, I read a piece on the Internet where Neil Gaiman extolled the virtues of Susanna Clarke's novel, JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL. A bit of a time later, I found the book in hardcover, which I promptly snapped up, and promptly placed it into a neat little nook on my bookshelf, where it lived happily ever after. The end.

Of course, I had completely neglected to make the time to actually read the thing, hefty tome that it was. Therefore, I am completely without a point of reference by which I could tell you whether or not the vision of director Toby Haynes is true to that of Ms. Clarke's. But I can tell you, as a body of work standing on its own, this BBC series is a thing wondrous strange.

Eddie Marsan portrays Mr. Norrell, a practicing magician who is, one would think, the only and last of his kind in King George's England, the ways of English Magick having been gone by the wayside some 300 years past with the disappearance of the enigmatic Raven King. He becomes recognized as a true magician, however, when he resurrects the recently deceased Lady Pole (Alice Englert) from the dead. What he tells nobody is that he does so by entering into a magical covenant with a fairy (Marc Warren), who has taken a fancy to Lady Pole and has included an enchantment into his deal that makes Lady Pole his for half her life, stuck in Faerie while she sleeps. It's driving her mad, but whenever she tries to tell someone what is happening to her, she ends up telling nonsense stories. She is eventually institutionalized.

Enter Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), who has recently discovered himself a magician of natural talent, and his wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley). He presents himself to Mr. Norrell with the proposition that the two of them work together. But as the days pass, onlookers note that Strange's magic is visibly more powerful than Norrell's. Also, Strange pesters Norrell about ancient magic, which Norrell does not wish to discuss, preferring a more respectable magic and disdaining that wild magic of fairies.

Eventually, the bold Strange and timid Norrell part ways as opponents. And when Norrell's fairy tricks Strange out of his wife, the fight is well and truly on.

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL includes an ensemble cast of outstanding performances, featuring characters from the faithful to the foppish, from the cunning to the conniving. Enzo Cilenti's Childermass could probably sustain a book all to himself. Paul Kaye's mad Vinculus, and Edward Hogg and Brian Pettifer's earnest Segundus and Honeyfoot provide an interesting subtext to the setting of a world of magic and those who would know it. And the glue holding all this together is the incredibly strong performance of Ariyon Bakare as the Pole's faithful butler, Stephen Black, also enchanted by the fairy gentleman to conceal all he knows.

Excellent costuming, exquisite set pieces, and some eye-popping special effects make this a story not to be missed. One wishes that all large, good books destined to a cinematic adaptation would go the route of such a mini-series, rather than the condensed shortcut of a single film.

5.0 / 5.0