Right, so, here we are; a seven week run of reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that you didn’t even have to pay for on Patreon. That said, the Patreon has taken a couple hits lately (some very generous backers have had to, for entirely understandable reasons, edit back to merely being… still very generous, actually), and I’m not going to lie, the last month or two has already been a bit tight finances-wise, so I could really use to see the number go in the other direction a bit. So if you can spare a bit, please consider backing. Really, even a little bit helps; you can set a monthly cap so that you’re only tossing in $1 or $2 a month, and it’ll still count towards all the goal totals, and it would be greatly appreciated.
In any case, thanks very much to the kind folks at BBC America, who have provided me with screeners (I’ve seen the first three episodes at present), thus enabling these reviews to go up as soon as the episodes air. Or, in this case, early, since this episode got released on YouTube a few days ago, so there's no embargo on reviews. Or, if you prefer to watch it on television, it's on BBC America at 10:00 Eastern tonight.
So, for those unaware, this is the BBC-produced adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel of the same name, in seven episodes, all written by Peter Harness (of Kill the Moon fame) and directed by Toby Haynes (of The Pandorica Opens through The Day of the Moon fame). The tl;dr is “this is really quite good and worth following,” which isn’t really a surprise given the pedigree of everyone involved. As for this specific episode…
It is possibly just my own perception, but it feels as though the first episode, as a televisual institution, is an increasingly leisurely affair. This is slightly odd. Ratings-wise, first episodes are still the boffo high points of series. But of course, it is finales where the actual dramatic fireworks go, and the default style of television, especially arc-based prestige television, has become a slow burn towards a fiery and grandiose conclusion.
One can only imagine how much this frustrates the people responsible for publicity on television shows these days. I mean, it’s certainly not that “The Friends of English Magic” is a bad episode of television. It’s quite good and moves at a nice speed through what is, let’s be honest, a tremendous amount of exposition. But it lacks any moment that seals the deal, emphatically communicating what the pleasures of this show are going to be. Instead we have something more like a prologue to a show that seems likely to be interesting at some future point.
Much of this, it must be said, is inherited from Susanna Clarke’s book, which I’ve only read part of, but which is, especially in the opening sections, which take great care to establish the sense of a larger world, digressing regularly into expository footnotes about the history of English magic. This explains why the initial viewpoint character is John Secundus, who, while certainly not a minor character, is pointedly neither Jonathan Strange nor Mr. Norrell. Indeed, Jonathan Strange is barely in the early portions of the book.
Harness speeds things up considerably, making sure that Strange actually has stuff to do in the first episode, but there’s not really anything that he can do to change the fact that the book is a very, very slow burn. The episode builds inexorably to the moment where Mr. Norrell makes an ill-advised Faustian bargain, the consequences of which are clearly going to be driving the plot from here on out.
So with the plot and writing essentially taking an earned and understandable backseat for the first week the show is left to stand on its other virtues. Thankfully these are considerable. Reviews from the UK have been consistently raving about Eddie Marsan’s Mr. Norrell, and it is indeed a triumphant performance. Norrell crackles both with his own genuine greatness and his crippling inadequacies. Marsan nails the classically Aristotlean character - a great man whose greatness is ill-suited for the circumstances in which he finds himself. Bertie Carvel’s Jonathan Strange has, at this point, not had quite as much opportunity to shine, but plays the charismatic fop that Strange begins as well.
But it’s the supporting crowd that really crackles, particularly, in the opening episode, Paul Kaye’s Vinculus and Enzo Cilenti’s Childermas. Both are secondary characters, but they electrify the screen when they’re on it, Vinculus in his wheeling yet methodical madness, Childermas in his icy confidence. And, though only in a brief appearance this week, you’ve got Marc Warren doing an absolutely stunning early Malcolm McDowell imitation.
And, of course, it goes without saying that it is a very pretty show. Toby Haynes’s Doctor Who work showed that he had a knack for blending objective and subjective views of the action. This is, to say the least, a useful skill when directing a show about magic; the sequence in which Childermas and Vinculus face off is particularly satisfying in this regard, with the camera flitting between simply showing events and showing Childermas’s perspective as events suddenly and disturbingly plow out of his control, as is Vinculus accosting Norrell with his prophecy.
And, of course, there’s the basic fact that this is all very, very pretty. I mean, of course it is. Costume drama is second nature to the BBC, and they’re as good as anyone at delivering a special effects set piece when events require one. The big moment of magic in this episode, the cathedral statues coming to life, is a gleeful moment of bedlam in which the world tangibly goes mad.
So what we have, at least strictly in terms of the first week, is the compelling opening to something that has the genuine potential to turn out to be a classic BBC serial. And if I can’t honestly say that “The Friends of English Magic” is an absolute must-watch piece of television in and of itself, I will say that I suspect that, in four or five weeks’ time, you’ll be very disappointed if you’ve missed it. Definitely one to check out.
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