Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a novel that hammered its way onto the long and shortlists for the Man Booker and Whitbread prizes, as well as bagging Hugo and Locus awards. It earned plaudits worldwide, and a movie option from New Line Cinema. And yet it’s a thousand-page novel about faeries and magic in Georgian England. With footnotes.
That’s testament to just how good, how rich, how imaginative and fully realised it is. It’s so good that it never came close to being pigeonholed into a genre ghetto. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached a preview of the first two episodes of the BBC’s adaptation.
And it’s excellent. The BBC has pulled out all the stops and given this story space to breath across seven episodes. The books unusual narrative has been compressed to bring the two titular characters into frame much faster than novel does, but it’s done wonderfully well.
The story focuses on an England where magic once held sway, but has fallen into centuries of disuse and disregard until the reclusive Mr Norrell brings magic back into fashion. His powers are weaponised by the English government and he stands aloof and alone until the untempered Jonathan Strange appears. The two become friends and rivals, but neither has the wit or wisdom to deal with faeries and mysterious Man with Thistledown Hair.
Bertie Carvel is a fey, foppish Jonathan Strange. He brings an arrogance tempered with a certain sweetness that really comes out when he’s partnered with Charlotte Riley’s Arabella, with whom he has a wonderful chemistry. Eddie Marsan’s Mr Norrell is a study in buttoned control, and the most magical moment, amongst the magic, is watching this academic introvert break into a smile of wonder for the first time. Paul Kaye is cunning and unhinged as the street magician Vinculus, and Marc Warren gives a chillingly alien performance as the Man with the Thistledown Hair.
No-one does period drama better than the BBC, and the production also deals well with magic. It’s subtle rather than showy. The way that the Man with Thistledown Hair glides around an unseeing public is just as effective as the summoning of a ghostly sorceress. That said, there’s a showstopper sequence in the second episode that ILM would have been proud of.
The only thing that might hold the show back is the flow of the narrative. Much like the novel, there’s a feeling of things happening in sequence but perhaps not in the dramatic arcs that we’re used to. It can be enthralling without quite being a page-turner, and even though this adaptation squeezes those thousand pages down there is still a sense that it’s not quite leaving you on the edge of your seat.
Nonetheless, it’s as good an adaptation as I ever could have imagined. Fans and non-fans are in for an original and magical treat in May.
Check out the trailer
Agent: Daniel Paul: