Friday, July 31, 2015

The Magic of "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell"

I'm more convinced than ever that the best way to adapt many novels for the screen is to adapt them as miniseries or very short limited series.  "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," originally an 800 page fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke, benefits tremendously from being presented in seven one-hour installments.  This allows the series to unfold the way the book did, to slowly build from a light 19th century comedy of manners to a rip-roaring adventure story in the final acts.  The early installments are also almost totally about Mr. Norrell, as Jonathan Strange didn't appear until a quarter of the way through the book.  A film version would have had to compress the timeline and excise the more satirical, humorous elements.  A longer series would have been in constant danger of losing momentum and running out of material.  BBC going the miniseries route here was the best possible choice.
But enough about the format.  "Jonathan Strange" charts the careers of the two main characters, who become magicians in an alternate version of Regency England, where the practice of magic has been dormant for three hundred years.  Fussy, book-hoarding Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) gets the ball rolling, by moving to London in order to make himself useful in the war efforts against Napoleon and thus bring new respectability to English magic.  Norrell's abilities come from lengthy study of his beloved books.  However Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a younger, dashing gentleman who soon arrives as England's second "practical magician," is largely the product of natural talent.  He and Norrell ally themselves, but find that they don't see eye to eye in many important respects.  Their relationship is further strained by the lurking presence of a strange, white-haired Gentleman (Marc Warren), who helped Norrell revive Lady Pole, (Alice Englert), the wife of a prominent minister, and has now taken an interest in Strange's wife, Arabella (Charlotte Riley).
The BBC spared no expense, and as a result "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" looks absolutely fantastic. The period sets, the elaborate costuming, and the displays of CGI-aided magic are great fun.  Magic is used with restraint, however.  The series is driven primarily by terrific character work bringing to life Norrell's stubborn efforts to enforce his particular ideologies, Strange developing his own opinions on magic, and the clandestine plotting of the eerie Gentleman.  Marsan and Carvel are both at their best and lead a strong ensemble cast.  Several of the most memorable performances come in the smaller roles: Norrell's manservant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), a butler of the Pole household, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare), who falls under the Gentleman's influence, and the comical opportunist Drawlight (Vincent Franklin), who quickly attaches himself to Norrell when he arrives in London.  I especially appreciated the greater emphasis placed on the two major women of the piece, Arabella and Lady Pole, who are more active and outspoken than they were in the novel, to the series' benefit.
I think that fans of the book will be pleased, though they'll more likely to notice the series' weaker spots. There are some pacing issues that crop up in the last few episodes.  This easily could have been nine or ten installments, and the fireworks of the finale are all jammed into a very short span.  Various developments involving the Gentleman's machinations are also spelled out much more explicitly, lessening the air of mystery and intrigue.  There's a noticeably slickness to the production - nearly all the primary creative talents are recent "Doctor Who" alums - that mark it as being filmed for television.  As lovely as the production design is, you could never mistake this for a feature film.  Also, I felt that the miniseries left things slightly too open-ended, perhaps anticipating a sequel.  It's a pity Susanna Clarke hasn't finished hers yet.  
These are very small issues, though, in an impressive, faithful adaptation of a well-loved fantasy novel.  I enjoyed it thoroughly from start to finish, and I hope that Hollywood can look to this as an example of how to handle other adaptations of similarly difficult source material in the future.  And I can think of about a dozen other books that I'd love for the BBC to tackle next.   

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