This is one of the year’s best films.
As BBC America ventures further into its creation of original programming, emphasizing the “America” portion of its title, it can become easy to forget that this is a British network that has long survived off transplanting UK television across the pond. For all its fairies and fantasies, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," a British miniseries, based on a novel by a British writer, focused on the idea of “English magic” in the 19th century, may be the most dryly British offering the network has ever presented.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the titular characters of Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) and Mr Norell (Eddie Marsan) are two practical magicians who have been prophesied to restore magic to England, where it has not been seen in several hundred years. While the country has plenty of men that refer to themselves as “magicians," they tend to fall into two categories: the looked-down-upon street magician and the gentlemanly theoretical magicians, who study magic but do not practice it.
The reclusive Mr. Norrell has spent his lifetime acquiring a massive library of magical texts and has been educating himself. After demonstrating his abilities as a practical magician to stuffed shirt scholars of the York Society of Magic, his achievements become the source of gossip throughout the country, leading him to offer his arts to the British government’s war efforts. However, his offer is met coldly, as the Secretary of War, Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) cannot discern the difference between what Norrell does from a common street magician. The failing health of Pole’s betrothed (Alice Englert) offers Norrell an opportunity to make a grand demonstration of his magical talents, which requires him to make a devil’s bargain with a manipulative faerie (Marc Warren) in an effort to restore her life. While Norrell succeeds in proving his worth as a magician and fulfilling his desire to further the cause of English magic, his sacrifice to the mysterious creature will continue to haunt him and Lady Pole.
Elsewhere in the English countryside, a man named Jonathan Strange, who is desperately in search of an occupation to satisfy the woman he longs to marry, is delivered a prophecy that says he will be one of the two men to bring magic back to England. Thinking little of it, Strange tries his hand at casting a spell and discovers that he has quite a knack for it. Since Norrell has managed to scoop up most of the necessary magical volumes in the country, Strange is forced to study magic in a more improvisational manner, calling on his instincts as a magician rather than Norrell's scholarly approach.
One of the major difficulties in reading Susanna Clarke’s novel was the lethargic pacing, which takes its time bringing the two main characters together. Thankfully, the series only waits until the second episode to get the to men in the same room. The relationship between Strange and Norell is irresistible, with the latter confounded by the juxtaposition of his love of the being the one magically inclined person in England and the excitement of having someone else to share his passion with, all the while trying to hide his dark secrets. In Marsan’s capable hands, Norrell’s stodgy, brusque exterior never eclipses the character’s myriad vulnerabilities. As the eager student, trying to think the best of his complicated master, Carvel’s Strange is a far more likable hero, but the actor injects a chaotic energy into the way his character performs magic that can be every bit as terrifying as Norrell’s moral compromises.
Harry Potter, by way of Charlotte Brontë, "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell" is a sophisticated, gothic fantasy, in which the mystical is more often mundane than jaw-dropping and more perilous than it is jubilant. At the center of the magical set pieces and cold historical setting is the fruitful and fascinating interplay between two men with nothing in common but a shared obsession that they can only truly share with each other. No matter how dry and impossibly English the series can seem, that’s certainly something into which any audience can sink their teeth.
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