‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’: TV Review

BBC America
There’s little wizardry in this BBC series about magicians.

BBC’s seven-part miniseries lacks the allure of Susanna Clarke’s award-winning best-seller.

Magic’s gone missing. That’s the belief of Segundus (Edward Hogg), the first character to appear on BBC’s earthbound miniseries adapted from Susanna Clarke’s sprawling popular 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. As in the hefty tome, this seven-part presentation (of which the first three installments were made available for review) takes place in 19th century England, around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Segundus is an outcast in his own club, The Learned Society of York Magicians, which mainly is comprised of “theoretical” enchanters who consider magic a dead art. But Segundus makes the society members aware of a practicing diviner, the soft-spoken but manipulative Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), who has sequestered himself away for years, amassing a library full of magical books.

It’s Norrell’s intent to bring magic back into the mainstream — and work his way up the social ladder in the process. So he does, beginning with a display at a local church, where he brings several statues to life (via weightless CGI, sadly) in front of the horrified society members. But the key word for him is always “work.” Nothing comes easy for Norrell, spell-casting especially, which is in no way the experience of Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a 30-something country boy who’s ease with magical incantation effectively makes him the Mozart to Norrell’s Salieri.

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The thing is, Strange is enduringly unsure of himself, and after both magicians are made aware of each other through a vagabond illusionist named Vinculus (Paul Kaye) — who also spouts prophetic gibberish about a mystical villain named the Raven King — Norrell takes this more naturally talented magician under his wing as a way to keep him at bay. That’s the central conflict, anyway, which only starts to come to a head by the end of the first three episodes. Until then, we watch Norrell and Strange mostly carving out their own terrain, which has its pleasures, even if teleplay writer Peter Harness and director Toby Haynes seem to be guiding the series with pro forma dutifulness.

This is often the way it goes with film adaptations of beloved texts. Somewhere in the transposing from page to screen, the life gets lost. Unable to replicate the novel’s pastiche of 19th century writing styles or its vividly imagined alternative history (footnotes and all), the series opts to go all out on the shadowy gothic production design and flimsy digital trickery. It should be astonishing when Strange conjures up a stampede of horses made of sand, yet it plays instead like a rejected effect from one of the Harry Potter films.

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The drama fares little better, even if Marsan and Carvel go all out — often entertainingly so — with the seething spite and roguish charm, respectively. Strange’s smitten devotion to his beloved Arabella (Charlotte Riley) is pitched at the level of a forgettable rom-com; Riley is much stronger in her shared scenes with Alice Englert, who plays a high-society politician’s wife slowly going mad after Norrell raises her from the dead. Meanwhile, Norrell’s Faustian dealings with a maliciously effete mystical being known only as The Gentleman (Marc Warren, his every word processed with echoey reverb) tend toward the laughable, since Warren is made up to look like some unholy cross between Billy Idol and Brad Dourif’s bushy-browed Piter De Vries from Dune (1984).

Little details like this stand out all the more since there’s hardly any bewitchment to the visuals, which strain for grandeur (as with an armada of ghost ships made entirely of water — bad CGI, yet again) and never seem to spring from any genuinely fervid imagination. Devotees of Clarke’s book may get some pleasure out of seeing this world replicated, if only as a husk, onscreen. But fan service only goes so far.

Twitter: @keithuhlich