Well, BBC has done it again. They’ve taken something great and managed to make it even better. While the series premiere of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell may not seem like a show destined for greatness at first glance, it is definitely far above par. But let’s be honest – with a phenomenal cast and great writing, it could hardly be anything else.
Most people believe that real magic is no longer practiced in England, and Mr. Segundus wants to know why. Fortunately, the fastidious Mr. Norrell is the last practicing magician alive and is willing to come out of seclusion to share his talents with the world – if they will have him, that is.
After a spectacular display at the abbey, Mr. Norrell is convinced to journey to London and offer his services to the crown in the war against Napoleon. Once there, however, he learns that what is highly regarded in the country is generally looked down upon in the city. As his frustration with society reaches its limit, Mr. Norrell prepares to return to Yorkshire and his beloved library.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange is busily pursuing his love, Arabella, oblivious to his impending destiny. Struggling to find an occupation that Arabella will approve of enough to consent to marry him, he purchases two spells and discovers that he is capable of magic. Now he must decide what to do with his newfound power and win Arabella’s hand at the same time.
Back in London, Sir Walter Pole, the man who spurned Mr. Norrell’s help, has suffered the loss of his fiancé. Of course, Mr. Norrell can help, but the price of that help may be higher than anyone can know.
Like the book, the series is off to a slow start since a lot of time is spent introducing the characters, explaining the setting, and building the necessary tension. Unfortunately, that leaves viewers with an hour of television that offers a lot of build-up and virtually no action until the last 15 minutes or so.
That being said, the characters are wonderful. Because the creators took the time to flesh out the characters and give them the needed attention before jumping into the story fully, they are actually sympathetic and worthy of viewers coming back to see how they fair.
Eddie Marsan is perfect as the fastidious and reclusive Mr. Norrell. His portrayal shows the internal struggle as the magician is pulled in different directions by both his need for appreciation and his desire for peaceful solitude. Even when he has the opportunity to reveal his power, he immediately attempts to run back into seclusion as if scared of what he has done.
The interaction between Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) and Vinculus (Paul Kaye) is also a pleasure to watch. While they are intriguing characters in each of their respective scenes, it is when they share screen time that they shine even brighter. Even when the dialogue is difficult to hear due to excessive background noise, the scene where Childermass confronts Vinculus on the street is great.
Beyond the acting, the show is actually very intelligent and seems like it will be dealing with several different themes, such as actions vs. intentions and how far people will go in order to be accepted and valued. As Mr. Norrell faces and answers these questions, viewers will also be led to ask these of themselves.
Spiritual Content – From beginning to end, magic is discussed, practiced, debated, encouraged, etc. If you don’t like magic, stay away from this show. Also, there is a character called “The Gentleman” who appears at the end of the episode and it is implied that he is a being from another plane of existence.
Language – There was no bad language that I caught, but they may have slipped a few British curses past me.
Negative Themes – When Walter Pole’s fiancé dies, the discussion is almost solely about the loss of her income, leading viewers to understand that the marriage is one of convenience. Before her death, Pole’s treatment of her is callous and it is clear that there is no love in the match.
Positive Content – The conflict between Mr. Norrell’s desire to be noticed as a magician and his desire to help people will inevitably lead to some discussion of intent vs. outcome. It is clear that he may be headed down a destructive path, but will his intentions alleviate any of the consequences of his actions? These are questions that we face daily in both large and small ways, and the manner that the show will deal with them could be either harmful or helpful.
*photos courtesy of bbcamerica.com