And that’s magic, says Tony Fyler.
If you haven’t watched any of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell yet, get to iPlayer and get this gap in your World Enjoyment index filled immediately.
While Episode 1 rattled along, giving backstory and setting some key pieces in position on the storytelling board, Episode 2 was rich with symbolism, characterization and the seeds of truly delicious conflict. Norrell, the uncomfortable, studious would-be magical hermit with a contradictory taste for adoration and a passion to be the man who restores what he sees as the dignity of English magic, is introduced to Strange, the wild young handsome natural, who does incredible magic without appearing to know how he does it, or to have read any of the thousands of books that Norrell himself has dedicated his life to.
It’s the ultimate expression of diligence versus natural genius – the Salieri vs Mozart of magic - and it’s particularly neatly simmered when Norrell takes Strange as his apprentice, drawing up a reading list for the next ten years, while, in a crisis, the Admiralty turns to Strange, rather than the spiky Norrell, to get them out of a fix, with rather more spectacular results than those for which Norrell is known. The two men don’t hate each other yet, but the lines of division are clearly delineated by the end of Episode 2. Diligence vs natural genius is one strand; social awkwardness versus ease is another; invisibility versus stature a third; and within the story, the choice of ‘respectable’ English magic versus the raw power of the Raven King is a fourth, and arguably the most powerful source of conflict for these men. Interestingly, while we’ve seen Norrell pushed by vanity to using the services of what we assume is fairy magic, as the Raven King did, his strength of technical principle comes through strongly in Episode 2, which could also be said to be largely about a bargain, and its terms – if you agree to a thing, you have to be very wary of its terms, as Norrell and those he’s helped begin to find – but when offered a kind of diabolical deal with the not-exactly-Devil, he stands on principle, knowing the dangers, knowing it would have the potential not only to raise him high but also to bring him crashing down and bury him, and the English magic he so longs to see thrive along with him. We begin to wonder how the story will unfold – will Strange, the dashing, fast-track natural with the insatiable curiosity about the Raven King and fairy magic understand enough to make the same choice and refuse the fairy bargain? Or, as Strange goes off to be the British magician of the fleet in the war against the French, will Norrell’s resistance crumble under the drip-feed of his need to re-assert himself as the principle master of English magic?
The story-notes that have been highlighted from what remains an intimidating doorstep of a novel do an excellent job of framing the novel’s themes in a very accessible, human way, and the performances continue to impress: Eddie Marsan as Norrell using his gimlet eye to crushing effect, and Bertie Carvel as Strange coming more and more to the fore – check out his Horse Sand magic performance for some great character notes. Marc Warren as The Gentleman, the presumed fairy lord who’s agitating and making bargains all over the place, is a stunning performance too – particularly when you compare it to the roles he typically was picked to play as a younger actor. Seeing him very much contained here, with every movement graceful and considered, is not so much a revelation (we always assumed he could do this sort of thing) as it is a delight, and particularly scenes between Warren and Marsan are crackling and hypnotic.
Pleasingly though, where Episode 1 was mostly a male domain, Episode 2 allows some of the series’ leading women to give intriguing, breathing performances too – Alice Englert is tragic as the haunted Lady Pole, and Charlotte Riley as Belle Strange both root the viewer to the spot and deepen the stakes and the reality of this alternate history.
It’s highly charged, intensely watchable stuff, and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell already has the feel, especially after Episode 2, of a series that will not only reward the viewer on first broadcast, but will continue to be a show that will please we box set binging geeks again and again and again long after we know how it all turns out – the quality of the storytelling, the world built by the production and the characters delivered by the cast coming together to produce a thing that you just want to keep on watching.
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
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