Common consensus has it that we are living in the golden age of television. No longer the red-haired stepchild of the entertainment industry and a stepping stone to the bright lights of Hollywood, TV is now where we find the finest examples of long-form narrative available to audiences. With the modern world being what it is, this of course means that for one format to rise another must be disparaged as falling; while TV is enjoying an impressive ascendance, cinema spectacle is increasingly dismissed as descending into a spiral of negative nonsense. Modern filmmaking is too dependent on bloated blockbusters, so the popular theory goes – one needs to turn on their television to have their soul nourished by story.
It’s not a theory that holds much water with DragonDark, who regard the small and silver screens in equal regard. In many respects, the summer season provides an opportunity to exercise different organs – the likes of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World are best watched from the heart, basking in the kind of warm nostalgic haze that leaves us infinitely more forgiving of flaws and diverting our mind from troubling thoughts of political unrest, the slow march of mortality and the fact that Ryan Reynolds continues to earn gainful employment. On the other hand, the undeniably astonishing output of HBO, Showtime and their ilk is food for the mind, blending an increasing degree of spectacle with whipsmart plotting that constantly leaves us hankering for more, devouring our evenings and weekends with no thought for social commitments.
Of course, the very best storytelling nourishes the needs of both heart and head, and you’d be hard-pushed to find a better literary example of scholarly sustenance than Susanna Clarke’s sprawling debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. A doorstop of a tome so weighty that surely at least one of its hundreds of thousands of readers used it as home defence apparatus, Clarke’s book enchanted the nation with it’s revision of British history, spinning the story of two dueling magicians in post-Industrial Revolution England. Becoming the most oft-spotted book spine on the London Underground throughout 2004 could only end one way, and a screen adaptation has been anticipated since New Line Cinema acquired the rights over a decade ago.
If any studio was capable of bringing such a rich and complex world to the silver screen it was the house of Tolkien that brought The Lord of the Rings to such memorable life, but it’s an undeniable blessing that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell failed to find a home at the multiplex; this was a project that surely begged to be picked and unraveled at the steady pace of television. Some may still have decried the source text as too dense to be satisfactorily customized for the screen, but such concerns are exposed as tish and fipsy by this BBC adaptation. Seven hours of gorgeous, glorious television, a binge-watch of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a fittingly magical experience.
For those unfamiliar with the tale of these warring warlocks, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell unfolds in an alternative Blighty during the Napoleonic Wars. This is an England you won’t find in any history books, as for a start it’s far from grim oop North; unfolding in Yorkshire, magic is considered obsolete and the realm of ‘theoretical magicians’. The tightly wound Gilbert Norrell lives the high life as the country’s last remaining practicing prestidigitator, making power plays by entering into ill-advised engagements with malevolent faery folk, but his world is turned upside-down by the intrusion of Jonathan Strange; a tousle-haired urchin from London who discovers a predilection for hocus-pocus thanks to a chance encounter with a man under a hedge, becoming Norrell’s apprentice. Alas, there’s no mop-and-bucket song-and-dance numbers here; two sides of the same coin, with Norrell is as academic and restrained as Strange is talented and impulsive, these two illusionists are prophesised to become the best of enemies, not least because of their philosophical differences surrounding the field of magic and its spiritual figurehead, the Raven King. Amongst a rich and picturesque background of war, romance, class divides and insanity, a bitter personal feud simmers and erupts.
Look up the term dependable in the dictionary and you are likely to find a photo of Eddie Marsan, and the ever-affable Londoner gives what must be considered a career-best performance as the anxious and insecure Norrell. Forever haunted by a hangdog expression, defined by a downturned mouth, slumped shoulders and sharp eyes as much as his abhorrently self-serving actions and distasteful snobbery, Norrell is too compelling to be wholly disagreeable – a testament to the prowess of Marsan, especially when his opposite number is so charming. Musical theatre veteran Bertie Carvel embodies Strange with an effortless magnetism, coming across as an incorrigible bungler in the early episodes before growing in stature and confidence – and danger. Carvel’s casting is pivotal, as much of the success of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell revolves around he chemistry he shares with his key co-stars; in addition to Marsan, sparks fly when the callow conjurer shares the screen with Charlotte Riley, who offers a fantastic performance as his wide-eyed wife Arabella. Riley is a welcome strong female presence among the supernatural testosterone, keeping Strange in line (“don’t act, Jonathan; think” she admonishes him in the opening episode, setting the tone for their partnership) before lighting up countless memorable moments with Alice Englert’s accursed Lady Pole, bravely standing up to her new friend’s tormentor. As the victim of Norrell’s questionable bargain with Marc Warren’s Gentleman Fairy, Englert engenders substantial sympathy as she bears her cross of her enchantment, decried as deranged by her husband and his society cohorts – and desperately seeking the assistance of Ariyon Bakare’s servant who would be king, who enjoys another of the most compelling arcs in the series. Warren himself, meanwhile, is an absolute revelation; tapping into a hitherto-unseen ability to intimidate, his Gentleman with Thistledown Hair is an entrancing addition to the cast, consistently responsible for sending shivers down the spine while rasping his way through monologues or strolling ramrod-straight through stunning fairy tale kingdom backgrounds.
The cast list of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is so rich and varied that all deserve mention and praise, but there is only so much bandwidth on the internet. This is compounded by the fact that, in many respects, the sets and costumes are also characters within themselves; this show is so delicious to look at it’s like watching an episode of Game of Thrones without the explosion of your Twitter feed afterward, with the castle keep of the Raven King providing a particular masterpiece in CG-assisted set-building. The visual effects are every bit as compelling as the backgrounds, varying from sensational set pieces to creepy, intimate moments – most notably Strange’s re-animation of corpses from Wellington’s army in The Education of a Magician, which proves more unsettling than much of the horror television so prevalent today. There’s no denying that emotion is the foundation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with our investment in the affairs of these quirky characters the bedrock of the show (the forcedly amicable dissolution of Strange and Norrell’s professional relationship in All the Mirrors in the World is as draining as the break-up of any romantic entanglement, but what follows in the final trinity of episodes is truly gut-wrenching), but as the dispute between the eponymous illusionists becomes increasingly personal the spectacle on-screen reaches astonishing eyeball-saucering heights. This culminates in a senses-shattering finale, which will surely be recalled as one of the finest examples of genre TV in 2015.
Fittingly for such an aesthetic treat, the HD transfer of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is quite astonishing – a reference quality image that puts any number of mega-budget movies to shame. The sound is equally crystal clear, placing an agreeably equal emphasis on the dialogue and the soaring, string-packed score. This optical wonder is reason enough to purchase the box set, but we’re also treated to a smattering of special features, most notable among which are half a dozen deleted scenes and The Making of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a 25-minute documentary that takes us behind the scenes of the production with talking heads from just about every major and minor player in the production (Susanna Clarke even crops up). Bloopers and photo galleries will enthuse those who can’t get enough of this world, and a pair of short featurettes focussed on the show’s special effects completes the package. DragonDark have to confess to have not watched these – after all, who really wants to know how a talented magician performs his tricks?
The modern world is as filled with mystery as the magical 19th Century England portrayed in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and quite why the show failed to blow up the ratings figures of the nation during its run on the BBC One is among these unexplainable conundrums. Programming of this quality hails from these shores all too infrequently (ironic, consider the scripts fascination with ‘the English way’ and associated national identity), so be thankful that Auntie and Acorn Media have wasted no time in getting the show to disc – it’s an entertainment experience best enjoyed on home video, free from the shackles of agonising seven-day waits between enchanting installments. A visual carnival packed with stunning performances, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a feast of fantasy that should now find the audience it so richly deserves. We cannot recommend joining their number strongly enough.