If, like me, you’ve been watching the BBC’s sumptuous adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Hugo Award-winning 2004 book, then you’ll need no further encouragement to pick up a copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on DVD and/or Blu-Ray. If you haven’t been tuning in, then you’ve definitely been missing a treat and need to catch up asap. The lengthy novel has been broken into seven one hour segments, with Peter Harness given the unenviable task of adapting for TV, and even that wasn’t really enough to pack everything in. It’s quite clearly a faithful labour of love, though, for all concerned – from the writing and direction, through to the cast and crew (especially production design, make-up and effects) – and as such it demands every serious genre fan’s attention.
In episode 1 ‘The Friends of English Magic’, set in an alternate 1806, we’re introduced to both main players: Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan – Sherlock Holmes, Ray Donovan), the stuffy book-loving magician from the North who proves his powers initially by bringing statues in York Minster to life; and Jonathan Strange (Babylon’s Bertie Carvel), a hard-drinking dreamer who hasn’t really settled into any line of work, but wants to win the hand of the woman he loves, Arabella (Charlotte Riley from Edge of Tomorrow). Things start to go wrong when both of them seek to prove their worth, Strange by accepting a spell from a ‘man under a hedge’ – Vinculus (erstwhile Dennis Pennis, Paul Kaye) – and Norrell by moving South and attempting to revive the late Lady Pole (Beautiful Creatures’ Alice Englert), something he can only do with the help of a fairy called The Gentleman (Marc Warren from Mad Dogs), who has more than an air of the Judderman about him. It’s a brilliant introduction to both the characters and the world, setting up what will be the eventual unravelling of Strange and Norrell’s lives.
In the second episode, ‘How is Lady Pole?’, we find Strange seeking out Norrell – who has been foretold as his enemy – in an attempt to learn more about magic. It’s here that we first begin to see that the student might well be more powerful than the teacher, when Strange is dispatched to right a floundering ship and uses a herd of sand horses to do so. It’s a showy display that will see him drafted into the war against France by the end of the episode, forcing him to leave his beloved wife Arabella behind. Meanwhile, we get more teasers about the mysterious Raven King, the last practitioner of English Magic three centuries beforehand, and see the dire consequences of Lady Pole’s resurrection.
By episode 3, ‘The Education of a Magician’, Strange is thrown headlong into the war – at first not taken seriously by Lord Wellington (Ronan Vibert) who gives him the nickname ‘Merlin’, but then relied upon more and more as the fighting continues. At the same time, The Gentleman is exploiting and beguiling servant Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare) and lusting after Mrs Strange, who has built up an unlikely friendship with Lady Pole. Roads created out of rocks, reanimated soldiers… what more could you ask for? How about an assassination attempt at the end?
In episode 4, ‘All the Mirrors in the World’, Lady Pole is taken away after the events at the end of the previous episode, while Strange and Norrell attempt to cure King George of his madness – with uneven results. When Strange calls upon the Raven King’s magic, we get to see more of what’s behind the mirrors – the hidden world of the fairies, or more accurately the lair of The Gentleman…the King’s Roads – somewhere Jonathan accidentally stumbles upon. By the end, though, he is once again drawn back into the war at the behest of Wellington.
Episode 5, ‘Arabella’, sees Strange slap bang in the thick of the action in a heart-pounding woodland battle. But more shocks await upon his return, as the chilling Gentleman puts his plans into effect to steal away Arabella and leave a doppelganger behind. The beginning of Strange’s descent into a madness that will leave King George in the shade, it’s a pivotal hour and edge of the seat stuff.
In the penultimate episode, ‘The Black Tower’, Strange’s attempts to become even more crazy so he can summon a fairy and resurrect Arabella reach their zenith after Norrell’s refusal to help. It’s a path that immerses him in the mythology of the Raven King, and the Black Tower – when it appears – is another one of those wow moments you won’t forget in a hurry…
But, of course, it’s all leading to the final episode ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, which pits the two against each other, before leading into a final battle in Fairyland, as Strange attempts to rescue Arabella from the grip of The Gentleman. Powerful, bittersweet and exciting in the extreme, it’s a finale worthy of the rest of the show – and one that will leaving you begging for some kind of sequel… just like the book did.
With great support from a massive cast – from Samuel West as Sir Walter Pole to Enzo Cilenti as Childermass, from Edward Hogg as Segundus to Lucinda Dryzek as Flora Greysteel – the whole production feels as much of a masterwork as the novel it was based upon. Filled with as many draw-dropping moments as tender ones revealing more about the relationships of the characters, this is also a darkly humorous affair which has the power – at times – to make you laugh out loud. Stunningly imaginative, enjoyable and visually perfect, I have no qualms whatsoever about recommending this to anyone.
Extras include a half hour look behind the scenes of the show, plus a couple more making of shorts, deleted scenes, bloopers and photo galleries.