There’s not a more consistently excellent network than BBC America right now (though HBO might have an argument): Orphan Black might be the best show on TV. Sherlock is always its most anticipated. Doctor Who has the most nerd cache of perhaps any show out there. Ripper Street is the show we all wish we had time to watch.
And now we have Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to add to the list, a massively ambitious undertaking from writer Peter Harness (Wallander) and director Toby Haynes (Doctor Who). Strange is an adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s best-selling novel, a miniseries with the unenviable task of somehow trying to cram a 1,000+ page novel into seven one-hour long episodes.
While you can tell that’s the case at times in “The Friends of English Magic,” it’s impossible not to get caught up in this fully realized world: a 19th century England where magic is real, but hasn’t been practiced in 300 years, seemingly lost forever, that is, until the titular heroes (?) show up to turn upper-class English society on its ears.
Magic, to The Learned Society of York Magicians, is essentially a high-society gentleman book club, where overweight and jowly men in wigs discuss the theoretical use of magic, but never dare actually try to cast a spell (it looks and feels a lot like politics, indeed the British Parliament looks about the same, with arguments rather than policies and change). For these men, Magic is a hobby, and despite the knowledge that it was once real, has become as elusive and ethereal as anything else you might find in a history book. One of their members, the by comparison extremely young and skinny Segundus (Jupiter Ascending‘s Edward Hogg), isn’t satisfied with this.
We see him trying and failing to cast a spell, to re-adjoin the pieces of something (they look like bones) that has been separated. Frustrated, he asks a question of the Society: “Why is magic no longer done in England?” This is greeted by the kind of patronizing, belly heaving laughter only seen in 19th century Britain. This is the wrong question, they respond. Magicians merely study magic. After all, should we expect astrologists to create stars? These blowhards from York are a lost cause, with the exception of Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer), a character marginalized in this retelling (but who was marginal to begin with), who believes in Segundus’ mission. He’s of no more use than the rest of the lot, but he at least believes, and is kindly about it.
As with many magical series, this one too hinges upon prophecy. It’s first introduced by Segundus, who learned from a vagabond street magician in London that two magicians will save magic. Honeyfoot foolishly believes that means the two of them, but this series isn’t called Segundus & Honeyfoot (though I’d watch that too). Segundus knows this isn’t the case: the street magician told him plainly that Segundus was not one of them, as they draw up to the Abbey of someone who is: Mr Gilbert Norrell, played by Eddie Marsan of The World’s End and Ray Donovan fame. After one episode, you know this is the role that the ubiquitous Eddie Marsan will now be associated with.
In short order, Segundus, upon sighting Norrell’s tremendous library, featuring books deemed lost and destroyed, asks him the same question: Why is magic no longer done in England? Again, he receives the same answer: You’re asking the wrong question. But this time, Norrell has a different reason why: because it’s simply not true. After all, he’s a “tolerable” and “practical” magician. Magic has not left England. This bold claim, as you might expect, doesn’t go over well with the Society, who force Norrell to prove himself. Norrell makes a wager: if he’s unable to perform magic, he’ll no longer refer to himself as a magician. Should he succeed, however, the Society must renounce all ties to magic as well. Everyone signs the agreement, save Segundus, who can’t bear the thought of losing magic. It’s a good thing, too, since he’s all that remains, after Norrell brings the stones and statues of the York Cathedral to life, whispering, shouting and yelling about all they have seen over the years.
Afterwards, it’s time for Mr. Norrell to come out of hiding and go to London, or at least, that’s what his servant Childermass (The Theory of Everything‘s Enzo Cilenti) believes, and he has a way of being right, and seems very much like Mr. Norrell’s master, rather than the other way around. Mr Norrell is used to the company of books, not bombastic British socialites, and is quickly miserably out of place and the subject of gossip, his feats of magic in York being reduced to the flights and fancies of housewives.
He comes to Sir Walter Pole (Mr Selfridge‘s Samuel West), a member of Parliament, to offer his services in support of the British war effort. Indeed, Great Britain finds itself embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars. But Sir Walter Pole sees no place for magic in war, and like everyone else, is skeptical of his claims of being a “practical” magician. “Magic is not respectful,” he claims, and the government can’t meddle in it. Before he takes his leave, Mr Norrell meets the sick Lady Pole (Beautiful Creatures‘ Alice Englert), Sir Walter’s fiance. It doesn’t take much of a leap to realize that Lady Pole will be his way of legitimizing himself and magic. But he threatens to leave London before he can: rebuffed and reduced to the equivalent of tabloid journalism, Mr. Norrell is ready to leave for York and his precious books.
This changes when he’s accosted by a vagabond musician by the name of Vinculus, played wondrously by Game of Thrones‘ Paul Kaye, the very same magician referenced by Segundus previously. Kaye manages to make this cryptic, confusing, prophecy-spouting character into a swaying, scene stealing demon.
Despite repeating it several times, it’s easy to miss the prophecy, thanks to Kaye’s often insane, jumbled and evolving delivery. The prophecy comes from the words of The Raven King, a magician that Norrell harrumphs just as The Learned Society of York Magicians harrumphed him, and if there’s anything reliable in this pilot, it’s that skeptics will soon eat their words. Vinculus heralds a second magician, and promises that “the first shall fear me, the second shall long to behold me.” There’s a lot more to Vinculus’ Raven King prophecy, but much of it is lost on one viewing. Expect to wear out the DVR for Vinculus’ scenes: once to just revel in Kaye’s all-out wackiness, and thrice more to uncover what the hell he’s saying, and what this foreboding prophecy might mean, as it’s clearly the central point of this pilot and mini series going forward.
But what of this second magician everyone’s going on about? Clarke’s novel, of which I’m attempting to read along while watching the show (I only reached page 60 before this Saturday’s premiere), is split by different Volume’s, splitting apart the narratives of Norrell and Strange. Here, however, they’re side-by-side, as we meet the jobless, scoundrel-y Jonathan Strange (Les Misérables‘ Bertie Carvel), who merely has one aspiration in the world: to wed Arabella (Charlotte Riley). She loves him back, but refuses to marry a man with no prospects or really, anything to do with his life. He’s trying, sorta: he’s reduced his drinking to “very, very little” portions (just 1 bottle a day!) and even asks his malevolent father for help finding work. He’s not receptive, having seen his son waste most of his opportunities, but what happens to old people standing in the way of plot?
THEY DIE, and soon Strange finds himself in charge of his father’s estate, which amounts to some sort of career in the 19th century, but it’s clearly magic that is in his future, when Vinculus tracks him down to the countryside, babbling about his prophecy and selling him two spells. Jonathan Strange makes the purchase to impress Arabella, or at least, show her something, and ends up being a natural, creating a mirror into the life of his greatest enemy, Mr Norrell, on his first try, merely rendering the spell as if it were a recipe for mashed potatoes.
One knows Mr Norrell, a man who’s only as practiced as he is because of decades of book studying, won’t be happy about this natural, raw talent surely coming to usurp his fame.
And that fame is a certainty, based on how we leave our all-of-a-sudden quite magical London. Lady Pole (such an unfortunate name) has died, and Mr Norrell realizes her resurrection would be the kind of magic that would cement his reputation and place in high society, and enable him to enact whatever game plan he has upon the world.
Of course, resurrection is hardly an easy spell, and there’s infinite number of literature dedicated to showcasing why it’s such a bad idea. But Mr Norrell is going to do it anyway, despite knowing that in so doing, it definitely brings danger to the magician casting the spell, and the subject of the spell. One wonders what can be worse than death? Well, we’re about to find out: Mr Norrell begins the spell, and is immediately visited by The Gentleman (Marc Warren), a clearly dangerous man of drab gray (hair, clothes, moral standing) and leaves. He offers to help Mr Norrell, but in return, wants to help Mr Norrell, to guide him, and for Norrell to attribute his achievements to The Gentleman. Mr Norrell refuses, so The Gentleman strikes a different deal, one affecting Lady Pole: that she will live a half-life, one in which half of her remaining life (once brought back to life) will belong to him. It’s troubling that Mr Norrell has the power to make this decision for her, but he does, and with that, Lady Pole rises, Sir Walter Pole a witness to the act that will probably doom England.
It’s also an act that has most definitely locked in a devoted viewer. It’s just a feeling, but by the end of this series, I suspect we might be speaking it in the same breath as Game of Thrones, Orphan Black and Hannibal, TV’s best Spring and Summer trio.
- Who is The Gentleman? He certainly doesn’t seem to be the Raven King. My money is on The Gentleman being some kind of fairie, based on the fact that fairies are referenced, and Mr. Norrell makes no mistake that these creatures don’t resemble what people believe them to be, and swears that he’d never work with one again. Has he broken his rule already? Going forward, we’re sure to see the rise of Jonathan Strange and the rivalry to follow between the two magicians, and I’m already tantalized by the prospect.
- Two of the best characters in this episode are Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) and Lascelles (John Heffernan), who are trying to champion Mr Norrell, in hopes that his ascendance will give them laurels and improve their social standing. Lascelles is mostly quiet, but with a dry wit. When waiting for Mr Norrell to bring Lady Pole back to life, he deadpans that he’s prepared to create a musical about the sorry affair entitled, “Tis Pity She’s a Corpse.” He should write that musical anyways. Drawlight, on the other hand, is as effeminate, loud and obnoxious as possible, in the best way. With Segundus & Honeyfoot, Drawlight & Lascelles (and of course the titular pair), Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell has a knack for fun odd-couple duos, and especially, filling out its world with memorable side characters that we want to see more of, even if they’re not important in the slightest.