- Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
- Actors: Bertie Carvel, Eddie Marsan
- Director: Toby Haynes
- Studio: BBC
We are living right now in a period of fondly gazing into the past and fetishizing a history that may or may not have existed. Brexit was largely an emotional attempt to claw back some diluted sense of a past greatness, and America is in the midst of its own full-throated scream to regain some cock-eyed idea of its own eroding exceptionalism. This has been reflected in the wild popularity of historical dramas that celebrate and glorify Birtain’s imperial past like The Crown, Downton Abbey or The King's Speech. But for my money, the best fetishizing of Britain’s imperial legacy is the BBC’s production of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which harkens back to that triumphant era of British exceptionalism two hundred years ago when a pair of wizards helped defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. If we are going to bury our heads in an imagined past, it might as well be one with wizards.
This adaptation is just as good as the novel upon which it is based, a sprawling 800-page thing of Victorian intricacy. Obviously, a lot of editorial decisions had to be made to condense it down to seven 1-hour episodes, but the right decisions were by and large made. Norrell and Strange are fully formed, well-developed characters – thanks in no small part to excellent acting – with clearly defined personalities that contrast beautifully with one another. The world-building is excellent, especially given the constraints of the medium, and the themes and general sense of what “English magic” means in early 19th century Britain are funny, engrossing and deeply textured.
The plot – in which a fairie steals some souls, and the magicians have to get them back while the return of an ancient wizard king looms over all – is what drives this show but it’s almost incidental, a necessary narrative engine. The real fun here is the wildly outsized but perfectly realized characters, the immersive world, the richly imagined alternate history, the petty rivalries, and the interplay between personalities. And, of course, the production design. This was a very good, fun series that uses CGI relatively sparingly, instead conveying the otherworldliness of its time and setting through simple touches like the use of candles that look like they were actually made in a candle-maker’s shop.
This is a textbook example of how you adapt a successful property that seems like it would be too unwieldy to stuff into seven hours of television. The secret, as it turns out, is to keep it out of the hands of Americans.