Warning: Spoiler Alert
Regular readers of these pages have likely realized this writer’s fascination with history and science-fiction/fantasy productions. So it’s little wonder that when the BBC announced that they were adapting “Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell,” as a seven part miniseries I was more than intrigued. After watching the finale of the story about a week ago, I can state that once again our cousins from across the pond, exceeded my highest expectations. The series now running here in the States on BBCA, is a story that will go down as a landmark production. Adapted from a 2004 novel by Susan Clarke, the alternative-history tale, that takes place in England in the early 1800’s, came to life on the small screen. The superb writing and brilliant acting, kept this viewer on the edge of my chair throughout the production.
The amazing cast will likely be unfamiliar to many American viewers, don’t let that dissuade you as their performances will quickly win you over. Bertie Carvel, a frequent actor on TV in England, has created a role for the ages in Jonathan Strange. With a hairstyle that evokes memories of Gene Wilder in the Mel Brooks classic movie “Young Frankenstein,” we watch Strange evolve over the story, from a young man lacking ambition to the greatest magician of his time. From a hopeless romantic that believed he and his beloved Arabella could exist on love alone, to the man who helped Lord Wellington defeat Napoleon.
Carvel dominates the screen each time he appears, causing the viewer to cheer when he succeeds and to share his sorrow, when he fears he’s lost the love of his life forever. That loss pushes Strange to seek out and pursue madness, in order to get her back safely. The actor hits each note perfectly whether he’s righting an English ship with the help of “Sand Horses,” as well as in his darkest moments of despair.
Eddie Marsan who sounds like a South Boston native in “Ray Donovan,” fills the role of the other character in the title, Gilbert Norrell, a middle-aged practicing magician who realizes his dabbling in the dark-arts is looked down upon by proper society. Norrell’s fame comes first and he tries to hang onto his sphere of influence, by any means necessary. Secretive and untrusting by nature, he tries to get Parliament to form a Court Of Magic, with him in charge.
Marc Warren once again portrays a character that you love to hate, following his spectacular performance as Rochefort, in the BBC series “The Musketeers.” Warren portrays The Gentleman, a Fairy, but rid your mind of any visions of Tinkerbell, or the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio. The Gentleman’s a dandy with a mane of snow-white hair and looks to gain a serious advantage with each mortal he bargains with.
Both female characters in the production are superb, with Alice Englert in the role of Lady Pole, whose brought back from the dead in a deal between Norrell and The Gentleman. It results in a horrific situation, with the young woman spending her sleeping hours in the court of The Gentleman. She’s spirited away each night to a ball, dancing with other guests of the Gentleman.
Charlotte Riley portrays Arabella Strange, a strong and independent woman, whose deeply in love with her husband. Jonathan and Belle want nothing more than to leave London and spend the rest of their days at Jonathan’s family’s estate. But a call to duty by the War Department and The Gentleman’s obsession with Belle, throws those plans to the wind.
Two standout performances by two wonderful actors must be mentioned. Enzo Cilenti as Norrell’s assistant Childermass, is simply brilliant. It takes a while to determine the character’s intent, but after a while the viewer realizes that Childermass may have more clarity than any of the other characters. While Norrell’s too self-centered to realize the gifts that Childermass possesses, Strange realizes how special he is and asks him to serve as Jonathan’s pupil. But Childermass passes on the offer, saying he wouldn’t be an agreeable student.
Paul Kaye plays Vinculus, a street magician, part beggar and part madman, who foretells the coming of the Raven King back to England. Vinculus informs Jonathan Strange that his fate’s to be a magician and starts Strange on his journey by selling him two spells. Strange performs them both successfully, causing him to choose a career as a practicing magician and getting Belle to marry him now that he’s chosen a career.
Ariyon Bakare gives the Pole family butler Stephen Black, an air of nobility even when life stops making sense. Born on a slave ship from Africa to England, The Gentleman shows Stephen the moment he took his first breath and his mother took her last. The Gentleman and Vinculus tell Stephen he’s destined to become a King.
Then there are the two glad-handers that attach themselves to Norrell, the moment he arrives in London. Vincent Franklin plays the unctuous Mr. Christopher Drawlight, who quickly becomes Norrell’s biggest fan and biggest promoter, a fact he points out to Norrell as often as possible. He ends up in prison after pretending to be working as an agent for Strange and getting paid in advance.
John Heffernan in the part of Henry Lascelles, is the craftier and more despicable of the pair. Lascelles, writes a book about Norrell which sells quite well at first, but then tanks when Strange damns it in an article he published. From that point on Lascelles becomes obsessed with taking Jonathan down.
Our story takes place in an alternate-timeline, in an England, that’s looking to restore English Magic, after being absent for 300-years. The only remnants of this once proud profession, are little more than historians who laugh at the thought of casting spells. The tale begins in Yorkshire County, as a young man named Segundas becomes acquainted with a group know as “The Friends Of English Magic.”
He poses the question to the members, asking why English magician’s have become nothing more than glorified librarians. Needless to say that the members don’t take kindly to his question. The leader replies that’s like expecting Ornithologists to fly, rather than just study birds. He does find one sympathetic soul, a man named Mr. Honeyfoot who suggests Segundas contact the mysterious Mr. Norrell, a man whose rumored to have actually performed magic.
Segundas contacts Norrell through Childermass and they reach an agreement. If Gilbert can perform a feat that convinces “The Friends Of English Magic” that Norrell is indeed a magician they will sing his praises far and wide. However if Norrell fails to convince them, he will stop claiming to be a magician.
Any doubts about Norrell vanish swiftly as “The Friends Of English Magic” watch stone statues come to life before their eyes. The statues talk and argue with each other, while in one part of the hall a choir takes to song. One of the statues grabs the leader of the society by his coat and starts yelling at him. When the statues return to their normal state, most of “The Friends Of English Magic” have fled the building in fright, only Segundas and Honeyfoot remain.
After gaining fame in Yorkshire County, Norrell tells Childermass that he wants magic restored to respectability in England. He says that he can help run the country with his talents, so they gather some books from Norrell’s extensive library and head to London.
His name’s now familiar in London although they believe his magical feat involved Norrell cleaning all the laundry in his village. He meets with members of Parliament and his offer of service is quickly rebuffed. He wants to leave London and head back home, until he meets Drawlight and Lascelles. They inform him that Lord Pole’s fiancée died and he’s besides himself, if Norrell can bring her back from the dead Pole will become Norrell’s champion.
Gilbert realizes any attempts to bring the young woman back to the living would involve dark-magic, a force he stands against in principle and has refrained from trying to use it. However his ego and the thought of becoming England’s Magician, overrule his caution and his common sense. That’s when he summoned The Gentleman and soon magic was back in England. He makes a deal with The Gentleman, beginning a tragic existence for the new Lord and Lady Pole.
Strange learned of Norrell’s achievements and soon he and Arabella were on their way to London for Jonathan to become Gilbert’s student. Opposites in temperament, they also approached magic quite differently. Norrell acquired everything he knew from the pages of his books, while Strange had just one book that his wife bought him, the story of the Raven King.
Gilbert casts some spells that help England in their war with France, but he soon stops responding to calls for help, causing the military to turn to Jonathan for assistance. He impresses the military so much that his presence is requested on the front. Norrell starts perceiving Strange as an adversary rather than his ally, thanks in part to Drawlight and Lascelles and the two part company. However because Norrell summoned the Gentleman to our world, the Fairy has wreaked havoc first on the Pole family and then sets his sights on Arabella.
Through no fault of his own, Strange loses Arabella to The Gentleman. At first he believes she’s dead but eventually he discovers that she’s been enchanted and is a prisoner of The Gentleman. Soon thereafter, Parliament’s in a tizzy as sightings of magic and talk of the return of the Raven King has the country in an uproar. Will the Raven King overthrow the Royal Family and take the throne as the next King of England?
Although the story is ostensibly about magic “Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell,” is actually a love story, about the love between a man and his wife, about the love between friends, as well as about love of country and of magic. That’s the common thread that runs through all the parts of this tale, when it comes down to it, what will we do for love?
BBCA is running this series right now in the States and if you’ve yet to watch it, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. Start from the beginning and experience every moment of an epic story and some of the best of what Television has to offer.
The Story Continues Saturday Night on BBCA.