June 15, 2024

Gabbing Geek

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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell “The Friends Of English Magic”

Episode One.

Author Susanna Clarke’s doorstopper of a debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has rather accurately been described as if Jane Austen wrote a fantasy novel.  Despite its thickness, I remember the book flying by as an absolute delight to read.  Then the BBC did a TV mini-series adaptation, and dropping BBC America when I cut the cable became even more painful as a result.

Fortunately, the mini-series is now on Netflix.

JS&MN is set in an alternate historical version of early nineteenth century England.  Napoleon is reeking untold havoc on the continent, and there appears to be no stopping him.  However, 300 years earlier England was ruled by someone known as the Raven King.  He was a powerful magician that ruled for a very long time before he suddenly disappeared and took all magic with him.  There are still magicians in England, but the gentlemen who call themselves that consider actually performing spells to be far too vulgar.  No, magicians of this era are more like philosophers and such who discuss and study magic rather than try to do it.

As it stands, there are two practical magicians rising in this period.  The first is Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), who has a massive collection of magic books in his estate in York.  Magic for Mr. Norrell is a matter of form and study.  He works hard but has a tendency to horde knowledge, collecting it before other magicians can get their hands on it.

By contrast, his eventual apprentice Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is more of a wild talent.  He’s a young man of idle fortune.  His beloved Arabella wants him to have a solid profession before she will agree to marry him, and being a magician seems like a good enough start.

Both men have encounters with a seemingly mad street magician named Vinculus, who offers both men a prophecy.  Both are destined to lose, he says, though they will do so in quite different ways.  Norrell dismisses prophecy out of hand.  Strange takes it into consideration.

Much like the novel the series is based on, much of the early part focuses on Mr. Norrell.  He’s determined to make magic prominent in England again, and with Napoleon doing his thing in Europe, it seems clear where he might be able to use his skills to the betterment of both his nation and his own interests.  Norrell attempts to get somewhere with Sir Walter Pole.  Sir Walter’s fiancee Emma passes away after a long illness, and Norrell realizes that if he can resurrect her, he will be able to achieve his goals.  To that end, he does manage after a fashion by summoning a fairy known as the Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair, a particularly intense and frightening figure who will do as Norrell wants for a price that starts with half of the future Lady Pole’s pinky finger.  She’s alive again, but she seems to be a wee bit…off from the looks of things.  Hard to say really since the only other time the viewer saw her, she was lying down and coughing hard.

The series is off to a fine start.  Both Marsan and Carvel are well-cast in their respective roles.  Norrell’s fussiness is exemplified in his body language, and the obviously ill-fitting powdered wig doesn’t help.  He wants to be respected, but he also wants to be a recluse.  Strange, on the other hand, is a wilder character, the more overtly comedic of the two, the sort of man who looks like he’ll try anything once and doesn’t care so much for decorum.  The two should make for fun when they meet next episode and no doubt begin to knock heads.

As much as Strange and Norrell appear to be the only two practical magicians in England, there are other lesser mages hanging around, and a large cast of colorful characters should make for a good bit of fun.  I’m looking forward to continuing this one.  The more light-hearted tone will make a nice change of pace from the previous Tuesday shows.