I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of heightened magical fantasy/adult fairytales. Even when Doctor Who veers into this sort of thing, I struggle – as my reviews of some of the more recent episodes of that show under Steven Moffat can attest. The mix has to be spot-on to keep me engaged, and if it all gets too weird or fantastical then I’m afraid I’m usually to be found heading to the check-out desk forthwith.
Unfortunately, admirable and impressive though many parts of this TV adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel undoubtedly are, the BBC’s new seven-part drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is teetering at the very outside edge of the sort of thing I’ll hang around for. And I stress again, this is very much to do with my personal preferences and attitudes, not a criticism of the work of director Toby Haynes or writer Peter Harness in bringing the book to the screen. Set in an alternative 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, the period detail is top-notch and the CGI realisation of the magical spells as impressive as anything you’ll see on television or indeed many a feature film.
The acting is also terrific, too: Eddie Marsan is captivating as the strange Mr Norrell, an insular and anti-social Yorkshireman who has dedicated his life to collecting every book on magic and teaching himself to revive the art of spell craft in England which was apparently lost centuries before. By comparison Jonathan Strange at first seems like a very lightweight foppish buffoon, Bertie Carvel looking for all the world as if he is pitching his performance as something of an audition for the role of Doctor Who for if and when Peter Capaldi should ever move on; but fortunately Carvel grows much more impressive as his character develops and discovers an aptitude for magic, one that sees him first apprenticed to Norrell and then rapidly surpassing him as he casually pulls off ever greater spells that are unknown even to his mentor’s formidable library.
As long as the drama focusses on these two characters then I’m broadly on board, but the plot seems to get increasingly distracted and disinterested in what should be its main storyline. Norrell and Strange’s first meeting in episode two is strangely low key and thereafter their initially mutually-delighted acquaintance deteriorates rapidly and largely off screen. Only two or three scenes later the two are in a state of cold war and Norrell is scheming to get Strange out of the city and as far away as possible. Instead, the story is hijacked by increasing forays into the nightmarish world of The Gentleman – a show-stealing turn by Marc Warren, coiffed like a Harkonnen from David Lynch’s movie version of Dune – with whom Norrell has entered into a Faustian bargain in order to achieve his first big piece of magic which has granted him instant celebrity and status in 19th century British society. Much of a fan as Warren as I am, I have to say that these sequences are just too far into the bizarre for me and I struggled through them.
Since I haven’t read the source novel itself (and have no real desire to) I can’t say whether this is a problem with the adaptation or the original novel. Before this new series, Harness had contributed several episodes of the Branagh BBC version of Wallander and earned his genre spurs with 2014’s “Kill the Moon” episode of Doctor Who (with which you might recall I had a lot of issues in terms of the wild liberties it took with science) and he’ll be back with two further stories for the Time Lord later in 2015. However it’s undoubtedly Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that for good or ill will be his industry calling card for years to come.
As a whole, I wish I liked the end result more than I currently do. Maybe it will grow on me over the remaining five episodes; or perhaps it’s one that I will look back to with greater fondness with the benefit of hindsight. As it is, I’m entirely aware that it’s my own in-built taste preferences that are the main obstacles to my having a more favourable view on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Rest assured, if this sort of fantasy sub-genre is your sort of thing then you should be thoroughly satisfied with what you see on screen; but if you’re not, then this is unlikely to change your mind despite all its high art aspirations.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell continues on Sunday evenings at 9pm on BBC One. The DVD and Blu-ray release is set for June 29, 2015.