Thursday, July 2, 2015

TV Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a dense, sprawling book that can defy categorization. It's part regency social drama, part classic English Mythology. It's two main characters can be difficult to engage with, it's story can take a while to get going, and I loved it. So naturally I was excited by the news that the BBC were making an adaptation, and then terrified when it was only 7 parts long. How is that going to work? Well, pretty well, actually.

For starters, the period is an open goal for the BBC, and British Drama in general. The grand houses, the costumes, the actors themselves, you get the impression that there are warehouses full of costumed extras just waiting to be dropped into a set, and so before you consider anything else, the show leaps off the screen loaded with detail. I do wonder if that this familiarity may be what cost Strange and Norrell so much of it's audience; many of the sort of people that would love it may not be period drama fans, and many period drama fans may have been confused by the level of fantasy buy-in the show requires. 

Strange and Norrell opens, curiously, by focusing on neither of it's two leads, but rather the depleted state of English Magic, which seems relegated to musty clubs and a general lack of respectability. Over the course of the first episode - the only one that stutters a little, in a generally excellent run - we are introduced to Gilbert Norrell, who craves to bring Practical Magic into the modern age, and Jonathan Strange, who needs a direction in his life and uncovers a mercurial talent almost by accident. The show then brings them together, and then apart, driven by their conflicting character and the one great mistake of Norrell's life.

For fans of the book, the TV adaptation doesn't so much take a lot out as to smush a lot together. Most of the main characters remain intact, and one of the benefits of television over books is that they can still have a large impact with diminished screen time. An early decision to place Arabella and Jonathans relationship near the heart of the show is a smart one, although does render Strange the far more sympathetic of the two magicians compared to their more balanced treatment in the books. Norrell remains complex and electric to watch mostly due to Eddie Marsans' performance and the care the show takes to give him quiet, reflective moments. 

It also takes a lot of time to ensure that the faerie-led damage done to innocents is well realised. The Gentleman himself is another scene-stealing performance from Marc Warren - look, there isn't a bad performance in this show, so can we take that as read - and both Stephen Black and Lady Pole get a lot of time to lay out how they handle their predicaments. Strange and Norrell also doesn't shy away from the social commentary of their positions as a black man and a woman, nor the class element that excludes Childermass and Vinculus from even recognition, never mind acceptance. 

Yes, there is a lot missing from the book, and the timescales (and complexity) are considerably condensed. But Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell stands well as it's own thing, fantastic to look at, from the battlefield of Waterloo to the strange landscapes of Lost Hope, and develops it's own themes and wonders out of the original text. There has been some talk about its faltering ratings, and I can't help but wonder if that was marketing-led, selling it as something it wasn't, as it's a wonderful piece of television, and a success in nearly every other conceivable way.