The BBC has adapted Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell into a seven-part series, bringing magic back to England and giving a renowned book a live adaptation. Pilot episodes are often rough things, but when you only have seven tries to get your world across it’s important to make a great impression.
Unfortunately, this premiere offering is too crammed with information to be coherent, and perhaps too timid as well.
It is telling that when this television series was first ordered, it was set at six episodes and then stretched to seven. For those who know the source material that the show is based on, it’s not difficult to imagine why–the book is massive and meticulous, and there is a great deal of information to be imparted for the reader to get the true impact of the tale. Sadly, this first episode—”The Friends of English Magic”—reads most of the time like pure exposition, and hurriedly exposition at that, setting up the rest of the show in such a blur that it’s a wonder newcomers to the tale will understand the subtleties of it at all.
For example, the elusive Raven King’s role in the story is mentioned through prophecy and the like, but the dialogue is so hurried that it’s hard to grasp precisely what anyone is so concerned over. Paul Kaye (of Game of Thrones fame) is the primary conduit of prophecy in the role of haggard street magician Vinculus… and he seems to be doing an impression of Captain Jack Sparrow for how he recites his lines and staggers about. Norrell’s purpose in moving to London and offering his services as a magician to the government is sort of blurted out, and suddenly he is there. The first episode essentially encompasses the majority of the first volume of the book, where all the groundwork is laid.
The special effects are beautifully done, the locales immaculate, the costumes and score carefully considered. Norrell’s act of practical magic in Yorkshire, which becomes a springboard for his move to London, is one of the most arresting points of the episode, watching statuary come to life and frighten the fakes and scholars of magic. In design, there is very little to fault with the production. But there’s a dulness to the surroundings that doesn’t feel necessary; it has been popular for some time to cover everything in history with a stubborn layer of mud on film, but the lack of color almost has the show reading like an older BBC adaptation, the lack of contrast making it harder to focus on what needs attention.
The characters are quite like the show’s color palette; everything seems to have been toned down and throttled back. The entire story is being cast in a tone of grays and browns. (We have been made to expect that of historical dramas by and large, but one might have hoped that the use of alternate history in the story would allow the filmmakers to deviate a bit.) While Eddie Marsan does an excellent job in his portrayal of Mr. Norrell, the character himself seems to have been calmed into a socially awkward academic, rather than the haughty miserly old fellow that fans of the book might expect. It’s unfortunate because in places where Marsan is allowed to fully communicate Norrell’s difficulty in the company of others, he’s instantly riveting.
Enzo Cilenti’s Childermass and Marc Warren as the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair really steal this episode. The cadence of Cilenti’s voice is vaguely hypnotic, and he plays the character with such a quiet confidence that it’s hard to dismiss him even when he is playing the fringes of a scene. He is wickedly expressive without distending into pantomime, and has the tall order of being responsible for driving everything in this episode forward. Marc Warren looks as though he leapt directly from the page to the television, perfectly designed with a demeanor to match. His ethereal body language should make everyone very excited to see more of the land of faerie.
Much as I hate to say it, I’m not really sold on Bertie Carvel’s take on Jonathan Strange just yet. Like Norrell, it seems as though Strange has been toned down at the start–maybe with the intention of allowing the character to build steam and grandeur as he goes forward in the plot. But it means that in this first episode, he lacks the charisma to really demand attention. While the character is meant to be a bit lost early in his journey, he should still be intriguing, still demand our interest. Carvel’s first episode sees Strange as little more than a distracted mess. Everything that occurs around him seems to be an anticlimax, a drawback from the action we’re meant to focus on. (This might be a structural issue, as the inter-cuts of Norrell and Strange’s journeys are practically neck and neck in the show, whereas the book takes time to introduce us to Strange.)
The story seems to find its footing when Norrell comes to the aid of Sir Walter Pole, following the untimely death of his bride-to-be, but that is only the last ten minutes of an episode that has already had fifty, so it’s not really enough. It’s possible that the show will get the ground under it in following episodes as we see more of the world that Susanna Clarke created. But if the show continues to charge through and mutter the plot at us while it passes by, it’s going to be hard to get the kind of enjoyment out of the series that the book provided. The atmosphere is there, the cast is clearly on board, but the story needs a little space. It seems as though it might have needed more like ten episodes, or thirteen, to truly comes across.
All of this is mere speculation at a taste of the whole bottle of wine, of course. You can’t judge an entire show by its pilot, so there’s hope that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will outstrip this initial gallivant. It doesn’t seem inclined to deviate very much from its source material—which is not a problem at all—but perhaps it could take its time to initiate those who know nothing of text it was ripped from.