“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.

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