JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL: Episode 1 Review

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Tony Fyler is won over by a magical adaptation.


Full disclosure time – I tried to read Susanna Clarke’s doorstop debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and failed. Friends and fans still occasionally prod me from time to time to tell me I should really give it another go. I think, ultimately, the need to describe everything, and the quest for verisimilitude of language – meaning it reads like a Napoleonic chronicler would have written it – makes the thing too dense for me to get lost in and enjoy. I think the furthest I ever managed to wade in was the miracle of York, before the density joined up with the still-humungous thickness of the thing and informed my brain that Terry Pratchett was still writing books, and I put it down.

Now, the doorstop has become a TV series and, as they did with the novel, people have been enthusing about it, so I figured maybe now was the time to jump on board. Then I saw it was written for the screen by Peter Harness, who penned the oddest episode of Series 8 of Doctor Who, Kill The Moon. Y’know, the one where spiders aren’t spiders but amoeba. And the Moon’s an egg. And there’s a whole tense pulsing vaguely pro-life, vaguely pro-choice undercurrent about killing foetuses.

Well, I thought, maybe that was all a bit rushed because he was doing the research to deliver a shiny televisual version of Jonathan Whatsit and Mr Whodjamaflip. I braced myself and sat down to watch Episode 1.

I still don’t know if Harness’ work on the two projects overlapped at all, but pleasingly, a shiny televisual version of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell seems to be what we’re in for.

Kicking off with a flash-forward, and then delivering enough of the ponderous beginning of the book to please the purists, while keeping the pace tight and getting to the meat in a much more streamlined way by taking advantage of the visual medium, Episode 1 bowled along, delivering its plot and its characters with efficiency and not a little charm, even when the characters were as inherently charmless as Mr Norrell, the first of the book’s two titular magicians to come to prominence. It must have been quite a casting challenge to get the tone of Norrell quite right, and to ultimately cast Eddie Marsan (formerly known as ‘that miserable-looking weedy bloke who’s in everything good, what the hell’s his name?’, or ‘the English Steve Buscemi’) was a spectacularly good day’s work. Marsan pitches the character at a complex level – arrogant, fearful, uncomfortable with people, disinterested, and always ruling the screen when he’s on it, despite being a physically unprepossessing figure. It’s much cleverer acting than you might think, not least because Marsan in real life, it turns out, is a pretty handsome guy, but here it’s all about the character, and Norrell’s combination of self-pride and massive discomfort around others almost screams out of the screen by virtue of all the things he doesn’t say.

The atmosphere of the piece is rather more ‘gentleman gothic’ than it is ‘Harry Potter for grown-ups’ (as it’s been called by some other reviewers), the contrast between the light and the darkness, between the bustle of the everyday world and the mysteries of magic a palpable tone throughout Episode 1.

Again, rather than a grown-up take on Harry Potter, the plotting and pacing of Episode 1 is actually more like Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel, but with magic. Another adaptation that was far more accessible than the book on which it was based, that, like Strange and Norrell, focused on one of the protagonists more than the other initially, so as to establish a realistic timeframe for events and its characters’ lives. Here, Episode 1 was mostly centred on the rise to prominence of Mr Norrell, with just a handful of character-rich snippets to introduce us to love-lorn wastrel, Jonathan Strange. Perhaps oddly, we learn more about the background of Strange though than we do of Norrell in just those handful of scenes, if only because Strange’s background, as if to belie his name, seems so much more straightforward than Norrell’s. Bertie Carvell as Strange is eminently likeable and watchable in this first episode, a kind of well-meaning rake with – just perhaps – more power than he ever imagined.

But by the end of Episode 1, the two men seem bound on their life-tracks, Norrell riding high as The Magician of Hanover Square, but secretly aware of the cost of his association with The Gentleman (an assured performance too from Marc Warren), and both having encountered scruffbag street magician Vinculus, played by Paul Kaye channeling his Captain Jack Sparrow for all it’s worth and acting as prophet of the Raven King to proclaim the fate of magic in England. With Jonathan having done his first act of magic and been shown his ‘enemy,’ despite knowing neither Mr Norrell’s name nor any reason why where should be enmity between them, it seems the question of why magic is no longer done in England is about to be blown out of the water.

What’s more, the TV version of the doorstop seems set to deliver an engaging, character-rich modern classic, drawing on gothic novels and the subsequent fantasy traditions almost equally, getting to the meat of the book and letting characterization and storytelling lead the way.

Annnnnnd ‘Record Series.’

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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