TV Series Review: “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” (Toby Haynes, UK 2015)

In 2004, Susanna Clarke unleashed her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a sprawling, 1000-plus-page epic fantasy on the world. Neil Gaiman hailed the novel as “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years,” a time period that notably includes The Hobbit and all of The Lord of the Rings. The novel was an enormous success, with Clarke’s writing compared favorably with any in the history of the fantasy genre (and indeed it surpasses even some of the most celebrated) and her created world, one very different from any previously seen, hailed as one of the most intricate and deeply-constructed since Tolkien.

The novel was a dark version of historical high fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century where magic and a connection to a magical realm ruled by faeries is historical fact. “Magicians” are those who study the history of the craft, until one man, Gilbert Norrell, reveals that he is capable of performing magic of the type magicians have previously only studied. Norrell undertakes to return magic to his country but warns that the historical connection to faeries is dangerous and cannot be resumed due to the awful nature of those creatures. However, when Norrell’s quest meets with jeers and laughter from his government, he turns to exactly the magic he warns against, making a deal with a faerie to perform a feat beyond his skills–a decision that will eventually undo him. Another magician, Jonathan Strange, eventually arises, but questions Norrell’s hatred of faerie magic, which Norrell is never willing to explain.

The two magicians essentially lock in a battle over English magic, with Strange’s imagination and intelligence chafing against Norrell’s increasingly dictatorial insistence on controlling all of English magic. Meanwhile, the faerie that Norrell conjured makes a Monkey’s Paw situation of the deal he made with Norrell and kidnaps Strange’s wife. Norrell refuses to acknowledge what he has done and drives Strange away, their feud appearing as a publishing war between political rivals until Strange eventually discovers the reality of his wife’s condition and forces Norrell to aid in her recovery.

That was the most simplistic plot summary I could come up with for this novel, which can tell you plenty about how difficult it would be to turn it into a seven-hour television series. The depth and thought o the story often suffers for the sake of speed, as Haynes and writer Peter Harness are forced to fly through such a complex story while establishing such a deep and rich world and history. The depth of history and the humor that often proved to be the novel’s finest points suffer from the need to build an understandable narrative and a quickly-identifiable world. There is not time to explain the history of John Uskglass and his magic, so instead what history is necessary for each moment is explained without any context. There is not time to explain the nature of the King’s Roads and the land of the faeries so instead they are just shown to exist behind mirrors as a land of dark and ruin. There is not time to delve into the geographical warfare that is behind so much of Norrell and Strange’s feud, so it is excised completely. There is not time to delve into the intricacies of the racial tensions that Stephen Black represents, so we are just given the basic notes that he was born into slavery and remains a servant who is barely more than a slave in spite of his excellence as a human being. There is not time to delve into the class warfare that Lascelles and Drawlight are attempting to act out against John Childermass and Vinculus, so instead we just see that Lascelles hates Childermass and calls him by names representing the lower class.

Instead the series version of this world comes across as a rather simplistic low fantasy world. Magic is present in a way it has not been for hundreds of years and there is a seemingly small faerie kingdom called Lost Hope where seemingly only one faerie exists. Norrell and strange fight their battles over the nature of magic and Norrell still makes his Monkey’s Paw agreement that results in Arabella Strange’s captivity, but instead of being an alternative history high fantasy story, it’s the story of a single evil monster, the unnamed faerie who then attempts to take control of England, and how two magicians are forced to destroy the magic they hold dear to save the country they love and the woman one of them loves. It’s not a bad story, but the world and story are far thinner and less interesting in this version than in the novel. It’s not unexpected, but it is nonetheless a shame.

However, for what it is, this series is a generally well-acted and –written story whose seams show more in its lack of character depth and poor visual effects.

Bertie Carval, Eddie Marsan, and Marc Warren provide excellent performances as Strange, Norrell, and the Gentleman (the faerie), respectively, though only Carval is really given much to do. Carval does an excellent job of avoiding overplaying the madness that Strange feels as he seeks his wife and otherwise plays Strange with all of the intelligence and impetuousness that he needs for his feud with Norrell to make sense. Charlotte Riley lets his performance down a bit by coming across as a rather silly stereotypical housewife who does not deserve the attachment that Strange holds for her, though the reduction of her character through writing is part of the blame. Enzo Cilenti is perfect as the real heart of the novel, John Childermass—he’s instantly someone who clearly walks his own path and could easily not be trusted, but there is an intelligence behind his looks and speech that tells us that he is far closer to Norrell’s equal than any could guess. Paul Kaye is so exaggerated as Vinculus that he loses the bit of credibility that the novel’s oracle has. Instead of dismissing him for class reasons, it appears that they are rightly dismissing him as a drunken nutcase, and it’s Kaye’s performance that causes it.

One of the bigger problems with this series is that the most interesting fantastical visuals of the novel come across as fantasy clichés in this vision. When Norrell attempts to scare the French away from the English coast with a fleet of ships made of rain, the ships really look like they are built of water, not of flowing rain, and they look like the cheap CGI that they are. Strange’s enveloping darkness as he finally succeeds in summoning the Gentleman and then turns to Norrell to aid in recovering Arabella is not just an area of eternal night but instead a whirlwind of cheap CGI black smoke that would look familiar to anyone who has seen an episode of Supernatural. Even Lost Hope, not described in memorable detail in the novel, doesn’t seem to match its attempted grandeur, as it looks like a ravaged bit of land with broken ship parts everywhere but nothing supernatural or particularly impressive.

Otherwise, Haynes and cinematographer Stephan Pehrsson don’t do anything particularly interesting, adhering to the expected cold, blue color scheme for such a dark supernatural tale. The Gentleman does seem to cast a greenish hue to many of his scenes, but Clarke’s work would seem to open the door to much more imaginative, inventive work than what they have provided.

Benoît Charest and Benoît Groulx added notably to the series with their excellent score, which enhanced the mood repeatedly but was similar enough to most scores that it kept the world feeling more like the low fantasy that seems to have been Haynes’s goal. Just a warning, though: the Blu-Ray menu plays the short opening theme repeatedly, and it does certainly get annoying if you let it play too long.

Overall, it’s a series that gets enough right that it still maintains parts of what made its source novel so amazing, but the truth is that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is simply too big of a work for this medium. If Haynes had instead made a seven-hour series for each book of the novel, it could have worked, but instead it attempts to cram the 1000-page story and its world into seven hours of cramped space, and that makes the entire thing feel slight and less innovative than it should. It’s worth watching, but unfortunately predictable.

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