Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the BBC’s 7-part adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s novel about the rediscovery of magic in 19th century London is finally making its way to the US tomorrow — and so far it’s been pretty damn magical. This is why you should give it a watch, even if you weren’t a fan of the book.
Warning: There are some mild spoilers for the first four episodes of the show below, as they have aired in the UK already. I’ll be keeping details as light as possible though.
Nothing says endorsement like a reductive statement, but seriously — although magic is a massively important aspect of Strange & Norrell’s world, it’s not the focus. It’s a strange, new entity that’s not been a part of society for three centuries, and instead, the societal norms of Regency England hold the power. So going in, don’t necessarily expect robes and wizard hats and all that: you’re basically watching a fancy period drama (something the BBC is very good at in the first place), with supernatural and mystical elements interwoven in.
But it’s that mishmash that makes Strange & Norrell so interesting to watch, because you’re getting this clash between the whimsy and strangeness of the idea of magic against a society where appearance and a sort of prim-and-properness hold merit above all. One of the underlying themes of the show is the war between these two thoughts, embodied by the lead characters: Strange wants England to celebrate its old, wonderful magic, while Norrell desperately wants magic to appear “respectable” to society. The big themes of classic 19th century literature — the balance of public and private life, the changes between country and city, the importance of reputation — are all there, it’s just that they intermingle with outlandish moments of magicians travelling into alternate universes hidden in mirrors, or summoning giant horses made out of sand. These two very different genres come together to make something that is not just interesting to discover, but feels unique.
Speaking of sand horses though...
Aside from the sort of lavish visuals you’d expect from a period drama — the costumes, the fancy sitting rooms and all that sort of regalia — Strange & Norrell definitely shines its brightest visually in those moments of magic use. CG on television (and the rise of cinematic direction on the small screen in general) has come on leaps and bounds in the past few years — just look to other genre shows like Game of Thrones, the visual spectacle of The Flash, or even the BBC’s own Doctor Who — but at times, Strange & Norrell feels like something you’d expect from the big screen rather than a television budget.
The sequence of Strange summoning giant sand constructions in the second episode (you can see a brief snippet in action above) is hands-down one of the coolest visuals I’ve seen so far this year, on screens big or small. The strange fairy world of Lost Hope, home to the series’ mysterious villain the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, is grand and haunting in all the right ways. The seven episode format already lends to the feeling that Strange & Norrell is essentially one big movie broken down into hourly chunks, but its whole aesthetic definitely emphasises that. If you want to watch something incredibly gorgeous as part of your weekend TV now that Game of Thrones is coming to the end of another season, you should try this.
Although Clarke’s original book has a wealth of fans, it’s not without criticism. One of the reasons it’s taken so long for an adaptation to happen is because many believed it would be impossible to film the book as it is. The book itself has been criticised for having an incredibly slow pace (the titular Mr. Strange, for example, doesn’t actually show up until the book’s second volume), and the way its narrative is interspersed with heaving footnotes that are designed to flesh out the world has come under fire for the way it, for some readers, impeded the telling of the actual plot. If you tried to read the book and gave up because of these points, then you’ll be pleased to hear that the show itself has largely solved them.
Outside of a first episode that is a little slow to get going (largely down to its focus on establishing the world rather than kicking off a plot), the show is a much tighter experience than the novel. Events are condensed to a reasonable frame to accomplish what the show needs in each episode. Characters and plot points are shuffled around so the story flows a little more smoothly. The content of the footnotes themselves have either been woven into the actual events of the story or mostly dropped, leading to a much leaner experience that still manages to be faithful to the dense worldbuilding of the original book.
A major element of Strange & Norrell is its characters making grave mistakes, and attempting to live with them with various degrees of success. At times, this moral wrangling can lead to some pretty dark moments, and the titular heroes are capable of being anything but heroic at some points — and yet, even when they’re being terrible people, you can still empathise with their plights. Neither Strange or Norrell are perfect. They can be arrogant and naive, selfish and even cruel during their attempts to argue about their differing approaches to the role magic plays in English society. But despite all that, you can see each other’s points of view and at least understand why they do the things they do, even if those things are, at times, awful.
This is partially down to excellent turns by actors Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as Strange and Norrell respectively, who can remain almost frustratingly charming and likeable even when you want to rue their characters, but it’s also because that sort of moral ambiguity sits at the heart of the show. In the early goings, the show falters a little too easily into setting up one or the other as “the good guy to root for” and “the bad guy to boo,” but as it gets going, the lines blur to such a point that it’s almost impossible to pitch your flag for either side as they begin to differ in their approaches. It doesn’t feel like it’s being morally grey just for the sake of it, or to create a false sense of darkness — it’s just compelling to see two radically different people attempt to solve the same problem and clash over that solution.
The moment that any sort of magic is portrayed in fiction that isn’t aimed at a young adult audience, you see cries of “It’s Potter, but not for kids!” in reviews everywhere, and Strange & Norrell is no exception in that regard. But it’s completely wrong, doing both a disservice to Strange & Norrell and Harry Potter.
While Potter itself fully embraces traditional fantasy (the chosen one, the battle between good and evil) and rejoices in its magical world, Strange & Norrell’s magic is tinged with equal parts whimsy and darkness. There’s a real sense of consequence to magic’s existence in this world, and the toll such alien power can take on a person. Even at its most magical, the show rarely allows itself to get too lost in fantasy, and that feeling of consequence is never far behind. (And this is not to say Harry Potter is wrong for embracing its fantasy — anything but, that ability to revel in a world of magic, especially as a force for good in the fight against evil, is part of what makes the series so endearing.)
That is to say that the series can be dark — it can be very dark — but it’s a darkness without going into full-on grit and gore for the sake of being “for grown ups.” It’s a very intellectual darkness, full of debates about individualism, the temptation of power, the tragedy of madness. Perhaps a better word would be “mature” rather than dark, and that can make it compelling rather than depressing to watch. In its most fantastical and charming moments it can still be as endearing (and its playful ribbing of traditional period , but Strange & Norrell’s considerable strength lies in its ability to challenge its audience to question itself, rather than chase sensationalism for the sake of appearing “adult”.
If you want something that explores fantasy with maturity, if you want something that mixes the supernatural and the period, and honestly above all, if you just want something you can sink your teeth into over an extended period, you should really consider giving Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a try. You’ll be rewarded with one of the best shows to come out of the BBC in a while.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell begins June 13th on BBC America, at 10/9 C.