“Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” – review

I must confess, I haven’t read the original novel by Susanna Clarke, but the TV adaptation, which finished its seven-week run on BBC One on Sunday night, was a bit of the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts.

Seven hours is a lot of television, and few British-made dramas – especially this kind of fantasy, which doesn’t come cheap – last as long. For those unfamiliar with the story, it is set in the early Nineteenth Century, in the years leading up to and just after the Battle of Waterloo. A middle-aged magician from Yorkshire, Gilbert Norrell, after years sequestered in his manor house, reveals himself to a stunned world, and becomes embroiled in the political intrigues of a nation paranoid about potential invasion. Meanwhile, the younger and more impulsive Jonathan Strange, looking for a career, is inspired to take up magic by his encounter with the street magician Vinculus. He becomes Norrell’s pupil, and serves as the Army’s magician in the Duke of Wellington’s campaign against Napoleon. The main propulsion for the plot comes from Mr Norrell’s fateful decision to summon a fairy – the Gentleman With Thistle-Down Hair – to help him bring back from the dead the young wife of Sir Walter Pole, a member of the government. This, and his and Strange’s eventual falling out, leads to terrible consequences for both men, and they realise that the only way the Gentleman – who becomes increasingly dangerous and involved with human affairs – may be defeated is to summon the Raven King, the greatest of all English magicians.

That, in a nutshell, is the story, and I was only scarcely less confused writing it out just now as I was when I was watching it on the telly. It’s a pretty convoluted plot, and disappears up a few cul-de-sacs and dead ends on its way to the final denouement. Apparently, Clarke produced the novel over a period of years by stitching together several different short stories, and it shows – maybe in the book things are explained more clearly, but there were quite a few “Eh?”, “Huh?”, and “You what?” moments for this particular viewer when watching the TV version.

That said, the money was on the screen – horses made of sand emerged from a beach, recently dead soldiers came back to life, a dark vortex engulfed Venice – and the special effects were employed carefully, and didn’t overwhelm the story as they sometimes do (I know this observation has been made many times before, but it still bugs me when directors fall back on computer-generated wizardry to paper over the gaping holes in the plot, something that wasn’t so easy back in the days when such effects were much harder and more expensive to execute – but forgive my middle-aged griping, I digress).

I did enjoy the performances, especially Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange, sweeping about the place looking increasingly wild-eyed in a dashing sort of way. Eddie Marsan provided a nice counterpoint as Mr Norrell, though after foolishly bringing the Gentleman With Thistle-Down Hair to life, he took a backseat, sulking in his library as the story centred on Strange and his increasingly desperate attempts to rescue his wife (played by Charlotte Riley, superb) from the clutches of the fairies. Again, I felt this was a weakness in the plotting, and seemed a waste of Marsan’s talents, though he manfully endured the most atrocious periwig I’ve seen in many a long year of watching dramas set in Georgian England. Marc Warren had a lot of fun playing the Gentleman, though he also had that habit…that supernatural villains often do…of speaking…very…very…slowly…

Clarke’s ear for the language of the period is well developed, and I especially enjoyed it when characters like Lady Pole and her servant, Stephen Black – ensorcelled by the Gentleman – are unable to tell others what is happening to them, and can only spout nonsense. These moments were genuinely affecting, and gave a nice sense of what it might be like to hover, terrifyingly, between worlds.

If you’ve read the book, you will no doubt be curious to see this adaptation – but if, like me, you haven’t, I’m not sure it will make you run to the nearest shop to get a copy. That said, it was long-listed for the Booker Prize – and I am fully aware that the faults I identify above may be more due to Peter Harness’s script than Susanna Clarke’s original novel. But I don’t want to end on a sour note – if I had really disliked it, I wouldn’t have stuck with it for nearly two months every Sunday evening. And perhaps compressing dense, epic fantasy into the time-limited demands of film or TV always entails that something – detail, usually – be lost.


“Mr Holmes” – review

There have been myriad adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories over the years – so many, in fact, that some people, including this reviewer, might well be a bit fed up of them. I grew up watching the wonderful Jeremy Brett in ITV’s Sherlock Holmes TV series in the Eighties and Nineties, and to my mind no other actor has better personified the character, though I also enjoyed watching the old black and white movies starring Basil Rathbone. I’m afraid the more recent TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch just leaves me cold – too pleased with itself, too knowing. But I think Bill Condon’s film Mr Holmes, which I went to see yesterday and which is now on general release here in the UK, starring Ian McKellen as the titular sleuth, is one of the more effective takes on a well-worn tale.

Perhaps that is because – adapted as it is from a novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, which was only published a decade ago – it seeks to present an epilogue or coda to Holmes’s illustrious career.

The film opens in 1947, with a 93-year-old Holmes returning from a trip to Japan, to his retirement home in the Sussex countryside. We gather that the now elderly, but still brusque, detective has long ago left Baker Street and his work, and that his friend and biographer John Watson is also long dead. It is also made clear early on that his extraordinary mental faculties are now deserting him, and he is slowly succumbing to dementia. It is for this reason that he has undertaken the journey to Japan, in search of the fabled root “prickly ash”, which is said to contain rejuvenating properties. But there is something else troubling him – he is struggling to remember, and record, his final case of thirty years earlier, whose tragic outcome led him to retire in the first place.

McKellen is an actor in whose company I am always glad to spend a few hours, and he doesn’t disappoint here: though some very good make-up is used to distinguish between the nonagenarian Holmes and the more sprightly figure of thirty years before – whom we see in flashback – the actor hardly needs it, conveying through his physicality and that extraordinary face how he has become worn down by frailty and guilt. Laura Linney and Milo Parker are equally first rate as his widowed housekeeper, Mrs Munro, and her confident, curious son, Roger, with whom Holmes forms a cantankerous but genuinely touching bond.

Condon and his screenwriter, Jeffrey Hatcher, pace the story nicely, and the three main plotlines – the last case, the Japanese trip (which is not all it seems), and the imminent departure of Mrs Munro and Roger to a new life in Portsmouth – unfold carefully. However, though I enjoyed this movie, and was moved by it, I felt it was ultimately somehow less than the sum of its parts, and that by far the most powerful strand of its plot was that set in Sussex, where Holmes tends his bees and faces up to his own mortality. I also wasn’t quite convinced that it would take a man, even one as emotionally detached as Sherlock Holmes, until his nineties to really discover what love meant.

That said, the scene where he visits Hiroshima, and witnesses a man praying amidst the ruins to his lost family (which finds an echo at the end of the film), really made me catch my breath, and indeed the whole film is beautifully photographed by Tobias A. Schliessler, and I found myself distinctly covetous of Holmes’s beautiful Sussex retreat. I also liked the way that the haunting music of the glass armonica – an instrument once thought to drive people mad – recurred in the story of Holmes’s last case. But in the end this is McKellen’s film, and it was surely his star power which made actors like Frances de la Tour and Phil Davis agree to appear in brief – but important – cameos.

Overall, Mr Holmes is quality film-making, and very English, despite being adapted from the work of an American novelist by an American director and screenwriter. If for no other reason, go and see it to enjoy the performances, especially Ian McKellen’s – he’s 76 now, and like Sherlock Holmes himself, a bit of a British institution.

“Through The Woods” by Emily Carroll – review

Through the Woods' stories by Emily Carroll

© 2014 by Emily Carroll

I’m a bit of a late starter when it comes to graphic novels.

When I was at school, more than twenty years ago now, some of my more sophisticated classmates tried to introduce me to books like The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, or Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. I read them but they didn’t make much of an impact (though I did enjoy Morrison’s take on the Joker, simultaneously camp and terrifying) – they seemed overlong and over-serious, lacking in the concise, snappy storylines of the comics I read when I was a kid, like the short-lived Scream!, or Tiger, both of which were absorbed by the re-launched Eagle in the mid-Eighties. By 1984 I was at boarding school, and often pretty miserable, and the A4-sized brown envelope my dad sent me every week with those precious comics inside was always welcome, and meant I could escape for a while into the world of Doomlord (evil shape-shifting aliens!), Billy’s Boots (kid finds magic football boots!), and The Thirteenth Floor (psychotic computer kills people!). Many of these stories, though I didn’t know it at the time, were written by such luminaries as Alan Moore, Alan Grant, and John Wagner, who also wrote for 2000 AD (which I was a bit young for).

But the way that “graphic novels” (that’s a bit of rebranding, by the way, that I find both clever and annoying – what’s wrong with just calling them “comics”?) have developed over the last few decades, the rise of “geek culture” (another ugly term, but it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m too tired to think of a better one), and the consequent seriousness with which literary critics now take the form, means that even the most comic-averse reader should be able to find something on the shelves that interests and engages them. A succession of writers and artists have really pushed the boundaries of what the medium can do, and the best graphic novels these days can be every bit as ground-breaking and brilliant as the best of “traditional” fiction (more so, perhaps).

Which brings me to Through The Woods.

Emily Carroll is a Canadian writer in her thirties, and the five short stories that make up this book are, as the title suggests, thematically linked by the woods, as a liminal place, both physically and metaphorically, where nasty, terrifying things can – and do – happen. “[It] came from the woods (most strange things do)” she writes in His Face All Red, when the impulsive actions of a jealous brother lead to something that really ought to be dead returning to haunt the living. In Our Neighbor’s House, three young girls in a remote cottage disappear one by one; in My Friend Janna, two friends hold pretend séances – and live to regret it. The longest of the stories, The Nesting Place, was perhaps a little grand guignol for my taste, but still creepily effective, and fans of HP Lovecraft will not be disappointed. The world these characters live in is often dark – illumined only occasionally, usually by blood-red flashes – and they are frequently seen to be dwarfed by their surroundings: snow-covered forests, large houses. Carroll’s pacing is carefully controlled, and I found myself half-closing my eyes every time I turned the page.

Like all the best horror writers – and the writer she reminded me of most was Robert Aickman, whose stories have a similarly queasy feel – Carroll manages the delicate balance between leaving the reader satisfied, whilst simultaneously providing no easy answers. Death is never the end in Through The Woods, though the afterlife of its characters is the stuff of nightmares rather than consolatory faith – change and decay are everywhere, and you really don’t want what these spirits are offering. Perhaps that is why – judging by the settings and costumes – these tales are set in the past, safely removed from our contemporary, urban world. Carroll expertly finds the pressure points of our atavistic fear of the unknown – as manifested in the trees from which our ancestors once descended – and gives them a good solid pinch. The effect is akin to touching an unearthed light switch – shocking, but you won’t forget it.

Through The Woods Emily Carroll 1

© 2014 by Emily Carroll