Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2015)

 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

Magic has not been seen in England since the time of the Raven King. There are a few who study it, but no one appears to practice it anymore, which makes one fine young man quite upset. In his search to obtain and use books of magic, he runs amuck of Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), the only true practicing magician in the whole of the country. Norrell is so assured of his talents and so annoyed at pretenders that he makes the magical society a wager ... if he can perform an astonishing feat of magic, they will disband and none of them may ever call themselves magicians again. He succeeds and they disband.

 

Many miles away, the dashing young idealistic Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is casting about for an honorable profession. A traveling vagabond tells him a prophecy about two magicians at odds in England and says that he is one of them. Since the spells he is selling are mere pennies apiece, Strange purchases them and tries them out for a laugh. Only, much to his astonishment and that of his soon-to-be-bride Arabella (Charlotte Riley), he performs them quite easily and to great effect! He is indeed a natural magician, and sets out to obtain the book learning required from Mr. Norrell to improve his craft. But their different methods, motivations, and intentions set them often at odds one another, threatening to fulfill the rest of the prophecy... namely, that they will become adversaries. In the meantime, Norrell has struck a bad bargain with the king of the faerie realm (Marc Warren) that places a young woman's mental health in peril (Alice Englert).

 

Considered one of the more unusual stories to surface in recent years, the novel on which this is based is a massive tome full of secondary characters, subplots, interesting bits of information about this "alternate" version of historical events, and rich imagery. The series is an equally impressive venture, with a gradual pace and plenty of time for introspection while it teases about the notion of morality and magic. The cast is quite good, as is the screenwriting, which mimics the flow of the novel in its sense of whimsical menace. Rarely are things what they seem and here, the lingering threat of the faerie king makes us reluctant to see these magicians pass through mirrors into the in-between world, or summon too readily dark spirits. The infusion of magic into a genre usually dominated by Austen adaptations (and heroines) makes it come alive in a unique way, but at times it does feel a little plot-heavy.

 

The magic is all impressive but not always innocent; there are dark forces at work behind the scenes and, as Strange gradually learns, just because one can do something does not mean it ought to be done. The purpose of the series seems to be exploration and telling an interesting story well, leaving it up to the audience to discuss the moral complexities contained within. The magic carries throughout into the final episode, which is a powerful conclusion. Along the way, changes are made from the source material, some good and others bad. (The good involves satisfactory endings for villains that are more central to the main action than in the book, and a stronger feminine presence in the liberation of Lady Pole; the negative revolves around Stephen Black and his fate, which in the miniseries is left to speculation whereas it has a much more positive tone in the novel.) The atmosphere is wonderful and the acting sublime. All in all, I was utterly transported by it.

  
Sexual Content:
A flashback shows naked slaves in a storm-tossed ship hold, where one is giving birth (several lingering shots of her naked breasts; side nudity on other slaves).
 
Language:
Infrequent. Profanities and mild abuses of deity. In episode 5, Strange uses GD a handful of times.
 
Violence:
War is shown in progress, along with its aftermath; explosions go off, killing people. There is not much blood. A man is hanged (we see the aftermath). A woman is shown putting a dead mouse in her mouth; a man then does the same thing, as well as drinks liquid distilled from the dead mouse (in an attempt to go crazy). A man is shot in the head (off screen); his corpse is seen, a bloody mangled mess where his eye used to be.

Other:
Lots of magic, of course, including using Tarot cards. Strange resurrects men from the dead through an act of necromancy, to bad effect (he cannot figure out how to remove their torment and kill them again). Norrell summons the faerie king to bring a woman back to life, with disastrous consequences.

   


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