Skip today’s entry if you find any of the following boring: British period pieces full of tricorn hats, pantaloons, masked balls, comedies of manners, compelling characters, dry British humor, magical imagery, and battles. If you are down with any or all of those things, please, read on!
The phrase “modern classic” gets tossed around a lot, and isn’t always accurate. In the case of the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, it is possibly the only description that fits. I’ve already watched it twice, once with one eye on my knitting, and a second time just so I could soak up all the magnificent production and performances. There’s not a wasted moment of the show, and one season really just wasn’t enough, even though it perfectly captured the entire 600-page book.
Today’s post is all about the glorious adaptation, with some light, inconsequential spoilers.
If you aren’t already familiar with the story from reading the book, here is a quick summary:
Mr. Gilbert Norrell is a 19th-century gentleman of leisure who has devoted his life to the study of English magic. Magic, which is well-documented and examined by theoretical magicians, is no longer performed in England, and no one is really certain as to why. Norrell sets out to become the first practical magician in 300 years. To the astonishment of everyone, he succeeds, bringing renown to his name and respect to the practice of magic again. Unfortunately, Mr. Norrell is fussy, antisocial, more than a little misanthropic, and wholly obsessed with the idea of making magic respectable –indeed, even boring. Enter Jonathan Strange, another gentleman of leisure who’s never worked an honest day in his life, but proves a talented and dedicated magician and embodies the romantic, dashing image that everyone expects.
The book weaves a rich tapestry of English history, both actual and invented; many of the secondary characters are actual personages from history, such as Lord Castlereagh, King George III, or Lord Wellington. Seams where fact and fiction overlap are invisible. The book won a metric shit-ton of well-deserved awards, was optioned for a film adaptation by Stephen Frears (of Dangerous Liaisons fame) and spent some time in development hell before the BBC stepped in.
600+ pages makes for a lot of story and some things had to be cut or stitched together for the sake of running time, but really, I didn’t miss much.
…I’m lying, I did– I would have been content for this series to have gone on for years, but I’d rather have the whole thing finished than one season that only covers a few chapters of the book, only to never see the climax.
Mister Gilbert Norrell – Eddie Marsan ~ I wasn’t sure Mr. Marsan was right because I pictured Norrell as older and more bookish, but Marsan’s performance really blew me away. He has a wonderfully expressive face which he underplays very well – he spends most of the series with a pinched, suspicious look, just as Norrell is described, but occasionally the mask slips and real emotion is displayed. When Jonathan Strange returns from the peninsular war, Norrell lights up with delight at having his old pupil home; in another scene, Norrell sits by the fire with tears streaming down his face as he prepares to destroy his only true friend. The series captured the heartbeat of the book: Above all, Norrell is lonely. This is a story about the friendship that grows between two different personalities bonded by shared interests, and how difficult such a thing can be to maintain. Marsan utilizes his short stature and impish face perfectly to bring Norrell to life. His pedantry and utter disconnect from the real world is sometimes played for laughs, but the character still maintains his dignity when all is said and done.
Jonathan Strange – Bertie Carvel -~ I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of Bertie Carvel before this show. In fact, ever since I read the book in 2005, I’d been playing a game while watching films and shows, trying to spot the perfect Jonathan Strange. I was pretty sure Tom Hiddleston was the only person on Earth who could perfectly play Strange; and I’m sure Benedict Cumberbatch had people rooting for him. Honestly though, Carvel nailed it. Carvel plays Strange perfectly; he goes from charming, self-effacing gentleman of leisure to magic-obsessed lunatic shut-in, and it’s a seamless arc. While reading the book I often had trouble imagining Strange as he seemed such a contrary character, but Carvel really brought him to life with his mannerisms, such as toss of the head, or a lift of an amused eyebrow at just the right moment.
The Gentleman (With the Thistle-Down Hair, as he’s known in the book) – Marc Warren ~ I mentioned the dream casting game I played; for the Gentleman, I always pictured David Bowie. When I read the book, it’s Bowie that I see, and I think his name was tossed around on the JS&MN website as a suggestion, but Warren proved a much better choice – he’s got the face, the mannerisms, the voice (assisted with audio effects), and they’ve changed the character from the book to be a bit more menacing and less fey. The book-Gentleman seemed more sociopathic, and almost innocent at times of the gruesome ramifications of his schemes. Show-Gentleman is a world apart from that, from his hissing voice, to his slow, measured movements, to his clawlike fingernails. It’s one of the few deviations from the book, but it works.
Arabella Strange – Charlotte Riley ~ Arabella is one of my favorite characters, and my worry that they wouldn’t do her justice was swept away in about five seconds of Riley’s screen time. She’s lovely, intelligent, and balances Carvell’s Strange to a T. Everything she does is fascinating to watch, although her story gets a little lost in the mix. Riley’s performance as the Moss-Oak was incredibly creepy, worthy of some of the better horror of the past few years, I thought.
Lady Emma Pole – Alice Englert ~ Another stellar performance for the series was Alice Englert, again who I’ve never heard of. She plays Lady Pole, a young woman whose life is both saved and doomed by Norrell’s magic in the very first episode. Norrell saves her for selfish reasons, and she spends the series tormented, but Englert’s performance is never shrill or overwrought. She is frustrated and defeated at the situation in which she finds herself, but never gives up attempting to communicate or escape. When she attempts to explain how she is whisked away each night to Faerie and forced to dance in the Gentleman’s revels, she instead begins to ramble bizarre, fairy-related stories from English history. At first it’s highly amusing, but the viewer quickly begins to realize how dire such a fate must be, and the daily hell that is her life.
Stephen Black – Ariyon Bakare ~ Another unfamiliar face, Ariyon Bakare brought pathos and depth to the role of Sir Walter Pole’s butler, a conflicted and layered character worthy of a much longer post. I won’t try to unpack the meaning or impact of Stephen Black here as this post is a brief overview, but it is something I’m looking into. I found this brief post which helps address some concerns, and would love to read others if you have any suggestions! Stephen is a black man living in Regency-era England, whose life would be exciting and dramatic enough without the intervention of fairies or magic. His scenes with The Gentleman were incredible and almost frightening to watch: on the one hand, Stephen is obviously in danger because of the fascination the Gentleman has for him, but on the other, navigating and surviving daily life in England is what Stephen does, so he’s uniquely suited for handling someone as capricious as the King of Lost-Hope.
John Childermass – Enzo Cilenti ~ I recognized Enzo Cilenti from HBO’s Rome, in which he played the ill-fated lover of Niobe. If you remember Rome but don’t remember him, just remember Titus Pullo intoning “Don’t embarrass yourself” while he is torturing someone. Yes! Cilenti was that guy! Cilenti really struck me in that role (mostly due to his interesting face and because he did a terrific job being tortured), and again in a brief, almost unnamed role in Guardians of the Galaxy. Apparently since then he was taking a Master’s class in How to Be a Stud, and also got some kind of vocal implant that drops his voice an octave and makes him sound like he’s spent a few decades gargling whiskey and fish hooks. He puts in an amazing performance as Childermass, which is another reason to love BBC adaptations – I never would have pegged him for the role of Norrell’s complex but loyal man of business, but he’s absolutely perfect. When the BBC gambles, we all win. Childermass was another intriguing if difficult-to-grasp character from the book, and his portrayal is just a joy to watch.
The Beeb really went all out. Beautiful costumes, props, sets, and the effects were just breathtaking. Clarke’s imagery of the magician’s spells is beautifully brought to the screen in scenes like this one:
The battle scenes are on par with anything you’d see on Game of Thrones, albeit there are lot less of them. Everything is beautiful, going beyond eye-candy into a visual banquet. You will find plenty of magnificent things to stare at. From the soft, fraying leather of the books in Norrell’s library, to the embroidery on waistcoats, to the vine-clad stones of houses, to the rings on characters’ fingers, there is always something exemplary to look at.
The show couldn’t have come to Netflix at a more perfect time, either. Since we’re on the tail-end of summer in Central Florida, all the scenes of cloaked people hurrying through forests of skeletal trees and having hushed conversations with their breath pluming from their mouth are a perfect mood-setter for the impending fall– all ten minutes that we get of it, anyway. I covet the coat Strange wears in Venice.
As mentioned, I’m sad that the series has ended, only because this was a world worth exploring much, much more of. I would love to have spent years with these characters. I suppose if we want more we will have to wait for Clarke to finish the sequel!
So that has been my write-up on the highlights of Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell. I would love to spend more time examining the show, but I think I’ll save that for another day.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll stick around! We’ve got Horror Movie Month coming up with plenty of new and exciting entries, horror movies at The Enzian, and I’ll be attending Spooky Empire, wearing my John Clare costume. I’ve been working on it since July.
So that’s me, done. I hope you have a great week!
Did you see Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell? What did you think?