Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: The Friends of English Magic

"All magicians lie, that one more than most..."

I've been looking forward to this dries for ages; I loved the novel. Susanna Clark really has written a wonderful work of fiction, a Regency magical fantasy that wonderfully fuses the world of Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian with that of Neil Gaiman, building a wonderfully compelling world and peopling it with fascinating individuals. Go and read it now.

I had high hopes, therefore, of this series, and so far (I'm actually three episodes in) my hopes have been entirely full. It's a largely faithful adaptation by Peter Harmess, with a little necessary structural jiggery pokers so that Jonathan Strange can be involved early on, made visually sumptuous by the ever-creative Toby Haynes, one of the best directors currently working in British telly. But s large part of its triumph lies in the wise decision to leave so much of the novel unchanged to the point that I frequently findyself recognising pieces of dialogue.

Bertie Carvel, fresh from playing Nick Clegg in Coalition, is a triumph as the charismatic and chaotic Strange, while Eddie Marsan slightly underwhelms as the sour and miserly Norrell, although I'm aware that others have praised his performance. Still, I must also praise Paul Kaye for a splendidly mad Vinculus (but is he an uncomfortable Jewish Fagin stereotype or am I overthinking things?)and Marc Warren, whose performance as the sinister Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is magnificent. Also impressive, albeit in the smallish part of Drawlight,is Vincent Franklin, whose performance in Cucumber should rightfully elevate him to leading man status.

It's early days yet, and this episode is, as always for first episodes, set-up. But it does a good job of achieving said set-up, nicely establishing Jonathan Strange as someone expected (not least by his own father) to end up as a rich, useless dilettante but who ends up pursuing magic to impress his belle, Arabella. Norrell's miserable and awkward nature is established, as well as his Faustian pact with the Gentleman. It's clear that we have a Roundhead magician and a budding Cavalier one. I'm also impressed with Childermass, at this stage far more interesting than his employer.

So far so excellent, but let's see how it goes...

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