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Thursday, 9 June 2016

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2015)

Jonathan Strange
and Mr. Norrell (2015)

I've meant to watch this for a while, and before I started, I kept reading the title as 'Mrs. Norrell' and was thus understandably confused when Norrell showed up and was not an elderly lady in Georgian finery. Despite this considerable setback, I did push on with the series, it being only a short thing of some seven one hour episodes.

Based on the novel of the same name, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is set in an alternate England which, three-hundred years before the current time (that of the Napoleonic Wars) had been split in two, with the North under the control of a powerful magician known as the Raven King, who later vanished mysteriously. 

Nowadays however, magic has all but died out, and is mostly a scholarly pursuit pursued by idle gentlemen - until a prophecy by a mysterious vagrant leads to the discovery of the two last genuine magicians: Mr. Norrell, a conservative and socially awkward Northerner who is preoccupied with making English magic 'respectable'; and Jonathan Strange, a foppish landowner who is new to magic, but who possesses a raw talent and a deep desire to bring magic back to England. As the two begin to work together, a mistake by Norrell draws them into conflict with the Gentleman, a mercurial faerie who swiftly sets his sights on Strange's wife. Meanwhile, the final part of the prophecy, which foretells the Raven King's return, draws ever closer.

The titular pair.

It's an interesting little series, taking full advantage of the BBC's penchant for making period dramas and adding a strong but, at times at least, surprisingly subtle and understated vein of magic and fantasy to it. It works, because in many ways you could extract magic from the equation and end up with a lot of pretty standard period drama tropes: A traditionalist and a bombastic progressive come into conflict over their opposing viewpoints, centered around the publication of a book; two women unwillingly come under the thrall of a man with malevolent purposes; someone goes to war only to return home changed. These are storylines which wouldn't be out of place in a Dickens book or a comedy of manners play, and while magic is involved in each one, it isn't at the core of any of them.

Which is not to say that the fantastic angles of the storyline aren't given their due attention either. While the prophecy is, for the most part, a simmering background threat (coming up most frequently in regards to Stephen Black, a butler who fulfills the 'a nameless slave shall be king' part of the prophecy - although the series leaves it unclear if Stephen or the Raven King is the one referred to there), it sets the story in motion, and the final few episodes sees the period drama elements take a back seat to Strange and Norrell enacting a magic-heavy plan to thwart the Gentleman.

More, it's that the series encapsulates that idea that a fantasy story should have its fantasy elements as an intrinsic part of it, but should not be about those elements - that the most iconic fantasy stories are often about situations that could happen in real life, magnified by the addition of magic.

The King's Roads, which are very nice. We don't see them much.

The acting is, broadly speaking, pretty strong, as the BBC brings back a lot of its usual suspects: Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as the eponymous Strange and Norrell are both pretty old hats at television dramas, as are Charlotte Riley (as Arabella Strange), Marc Warren (as the Gentleman) and Enzo Cilenti (as John Childermass). The only member of the main cast without an extensive background in period dramas is Ariyon Bakare, playing Stephen Black, but you wouldn't be able to tell - his is one of the most engaging and interesting performances as the piece, as Stephen is torn between his ethics, his wholly justified resentment towards the rest of society, and his binding to the Gentleman.

(Incidentally, kudos to the series - and, one must assume, the book - for not trying to downplay the racism that Stephen faces. It's subtle but frequent, as characters condescend him and insult him to his face, and Stephen gets a short monologue towards the end of the series, talking about the injustices he faces. One of his repeated lines throughout the series is 'you cannot be a slave on English soil', and every time he says it, someone - usually the Gentleman - is quick to point out that that's only true in the letter of the law, not in spirit or action.)

I'm not actually seeing the resemblance to thistle-down, in truth.

The writing is fast-paced - surprisingly so, since by all accounts the book is quite a slow one - and concise, with each episode dramatically changing the status quo that the characters are coping with. The series ends on a slightly odd note, though: The Raven King returns, but we barely see him - all he does is resurrect a man and heal another's face; Strange and Norrell are whisked away to parts unknown, and while we're told that they're alive, we find out nothing else; Stephen kills the Gentleman, but we don't see what's happened to him, bar that it's implied that Stephen takes his place as king of Lost Hope. The book, I gather, expands a little more on these, illuminating both Stephen and the titular duo's situations at least somewhat.

All in all, I quite enjoyed this series. I don't think it'll ever be among my favourite television shows of all time, but I was quite happy marathoning it, and I'd certainly recommend it to others.

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