Oh, but to be a magician in England! The painstaking alternate history of Susanna Clarke’s blockbuster novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell presents a loving 19th-century pastiche of an England we almost recognize, in which magic is alive, and magicians walk the Earth both in the moment and throughout the footnotes. And though it was optioned for film not long after it was published, when the movie came to nothing it was no surprise. Some things are just unfilmable; certainly, something on the Dickensian scale of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell couldn’t be condensed to two hours, on plot considerations alone.
But there was also that creeping sense that much of the book’s appeal lay in the way it meandered through its text as if through an English garden, treating footnotes like a gossipy friend stopping by with the latest scuttlebutt, its magic like a good book of fairy stories—leaving the beautiful worst to the imagination. To balance doing justice to the book and to television, a miniseries adaptation would have to be very skillful indeed. It’s one of the greatest triumphs of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell that it all seems as effortless as—well, magic. Director Toby Haynes immerses the audience in the bustle of London and the uncanny wilds of Yorkshire, and playwright Peter Harness pares down the whole to its essentials, leaving out some of the book’s sprawling charm but threading everything with a tension that means tonight’s finale might actually live up to the hype.
The series’ actual magic, as it turns out, isn’t at all easy, which is a large part of its appeal. It’s a central aspect of the narrative so large as to be considered a major character: Here, magic is a tangle of scholarship and daring, and the consequences of the smallest spell reverberate not just through the story, but through the visuals. Lighting a candle to summon the faerie Gentleman (Marc Warren) is, in the first episode, a lovely magic trick handled with some classic sleight-of-hand cinematography. By now, having seen what the Gentleman is capable of, lighting a candle has become one of the most fraught pieces of stage business in the series. The whole series seems steeped in these small magics (unexpected tarot cards, the desperate need for a scrying bowl) that suggest the supernatural and ratchet up tension without the need for CGI. Some of the larger effects are destined to feel more claustrophobic in the concrete than in the imagination—the King’s Roads have the perhaps-inescapable Tolkien-cutout feeling, and the series wisely doesn’t linger on them—but in terms of creating a visual vocabulary of a magic system not quite like any other, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell largely excels.
It helps, of course, if you believe the magicians. And though the production design is lavish and the special effects well done, the miniseries has a cast given the burden not just of building characters, but also embodying something of the novel’s narrative remove—to become the footnotes they wish to see in the world. It’s serendipitous, then, that the series found the cast it found, which is universally marvelous and manages to imbue even the smallest parts with all the magic and/or social niceties to neatly balance the tone. Bertie Carvel is a deliciously theatrical choice for the showy Jonathan Strange, keeping a running commentary of raised eyebrows and loaded pauses, a man at home with very seriously shoving his hands into sand to move the beach itself and right a ship. Still, it’s Eddie Marsan, as the withdrawn and fastidious Mr. Norrell, who takes the helm. Norrell—who is by turns achingly overwhelmed, marvelously tried, or fallibly villainous—feels like a character Marsan has been waiting for; he answers the challenge marvelously, creating a complex and deeply human scholar whose relationship with celebrity is as thorny as his relationship with magic. Only slightly less thorny are his relationships with other people, like the manfully mysterious Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) or the foppish Drawlight (an all-cylinders Vincent Franklin), and the wry but suitably terrifying Gentleman (Warren, who’s getting hilariously comfortable playing compelling creeps).
But this isn’t exclusively a sphere of British white men: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell also hopes to comment on marginalized historical narratives, particularly through the practical Arabella Strange (Charlotte Riley) and the fierce and brittle Lady Pole (Alice Englert). This is both an admirable cause and a tricky thing to filter through the story’s framework, which leans heavily on folktale damseling and is the sort of situation in which intent can get flattened for effect. With time of the essence even in a seven-hour story, it must become easier to have the eerie imagery of trapped women working in a horror context rather than a feminist one. Englert and Riley both deliver great performances—with Englert in particular throwing herself into the role of an increasingly desperate woman to create a ticking clock of horror throughout the series. But any magic plotline that traps the two women of note and the series’ sole character of color, Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare) before it even begins to think of punishing others requires a deeply satisfying payoff that works as both catharsis and commentary.
Overall, however, the alchemy of this adaptation is golden, against the odds. Its frosted forests and book-cluttered libraries stand side by side, and the magic that begins as the subject of idle debate for gentlemen looking for something to do has expanded believably into a world in which magic brings both power and danger, and as the consequences continue to stack up and the stakes grow from academia to society to war on three fronts, the series has grown steadily darker to suit. No longer are the ideologies of magic a subject of debate or a fencing match between two hardheaded magicians who distrust one another—they are elemental fulcrums on which lives hinge, and with magic as unknowable as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has made it, the series has become a glimpse of alternate-historical chaos theory as much as a study in its characters. Skillfully directed, impeccably designed, and brilliantly cast, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is as charming, and as dark, as it could ever hope to be.
A review of the series finale by Caitlin PenzeyMoog will run Saturday, July 25