For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a seven-part British historical fantasy drama series adapted from Susanna Clarke’s best-selling novel of the same name. It is set during the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century and presents an alternative history of the period where magic is widely acknowledged but rarely practiced. I do like my entertainment to be an escape from reality – a diversion, because I already know what reality feels like! I want to experience the impossible. And I LOVED this series! This is all my way of saying that the show was suitably magical, a touch weird, and proof that style and substance don’t necessarily have to be exclusive.
I was honestly blown away by some of the CGI sequences in this series, and it was one of the things that initially dew me to the show from as early on as the trailer. I’m thinking in particular of a visually stunning and incredibly ambitious sequence from episode two in which Strange (Bertie Carvel) conjured a herd of horses made from sand to free a ship run aground. That, for whatever reason, really stuck out to me. Sometimes it can be difficult to make CGI elements look good on a TV budget but this series really pulled out all the stops.
Another welcome plus for this show was that it had an incredibly strong female presence. This included Charlotte Riley as Arabella, Alice Englert as Lady Pole and Lucinda Dryzek as Flora Greysteel (who assumed a more prominent role towards the latter half of the series). All of these women played crucial roles and were often relied upon by the blokes to get stuff done, not to mention the grit, determination and ingenuity they displayed. Honestly, those men wouldn’t have lasted five minutes without them! Arabella was a loyal and caring wife who simultaneously refused to just accept things she didn’t like, Lady Pole was one strong, independent woman who didn’t need no man, and Flora was way more than just a pretty face! As you can probably tell, I absolutely adored these characters with a burning passion!
The relationships, both romantic and platonic, between these characters made for some really interesting dynamics. Obviously you had your Arabella/Jonathan romance and Norrell and Jonathan as best frenemies, but there was also the unusual master/servant relationship between The Gentleman and Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare). And don’t even get me started on the wildcard that was Childermass (Enzo Cilenti). One minute he was with Strange, the next he was against him; this morally ambiguous guy’s motivations were often a complete mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in deadpan humour.
Overall I just really liked the feel of the series. I liked how magical it felt but I also appreciated the much darker undercurrents that ran through each episode. I don’t really know how to describe it other than the magic felt almost visceral; it was something that was a part of them and took energy and concentration and as a result always seemed to carry an element of risk, because they couldn’t distance themselves from the magic they practiced. Marc Warren (who has popped up on this blog before) plays a truly great villain as The Gentleman, AKA the Faery King dude who might as well appear in the dictionary as the definition of chaos. He was just the right blend of charismatic and downright menacing to make himself a wonderful antagonist. The ending also felt spot on: realistically not everyone got a happy ending but it was fun to imagine where things may go from there. The audience was provided with closure but a few little threads were left loose for someone to pull on if they wanted to take the story further.
As superb a performance as Eddie Marsan gave us, I hate to say that I found Mr Norrell to be almost unbearable for, like, five of the seven episodes. I’m still unable to figure out if we were meant to sympathise with him or not. He was mysterious in episode one and redeemed in episode seven, but everything in between just irritated me. Not something I was expecting from a main character. I know he was essentially manipulated by Lascelles (John Heffernan, whose comeuppance, I might add, was particularly satisfying) but that doesn’t change the fact that he acted like a petty, jealous eight-year-old. I’m sorry, but the frustration is strong, even now. I swear I wanted to like him, I just couldn’t – although his reaction to the faery roads was kind of adorable!
Once again, so many of the disastrous results that came from tampering with magic someone didn’t understand could have been avoided if people had simply talked to each other! Norrell was the worst offender here; he kept insisting that Strange should not, under ANY circumstances do the thing but refused to give any explanation. So Strange – being curious and unaware of the danger – went and did the thing anyway. Strange himself summed up my feelings best when he posed the question to Norrell of how, exactly, he was meant to know what NOT to mess with if he never had the details explained to him? It’s always the same; sharing is caring, folks!
I have never ever encountered the ‘alternative history’ genre before and this saddens me, because this concept was superb. Weaving fantasy into real events without contradicting what actually happened takes a great deal of skill, plus the whole thing is so fun to watch translated onto the screen. I gave Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 4.5/5 stars for the brilliant plot and cast performances even if it wasn’t quite perfect. I now have a copy of the book and plan on purchasing the DVD too because I enjoyed it that much! I would absolutely recommend this series to fantasy fans but be warned: it isn’t all whimsical wand-waving. And I know that it’s very unlikely but I am secretly wishing for a second series – with my favourite trinity of Arabella, Lady Pole and Flora as badass lady magicians showing the men how it’s done, please!