Earlier this year BBC One showed the film adaptation of Susanna Clarke's bestselling debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It came out as historical fantasy TV mini-series and was a huge success, as the book had been following its publication by Bloomsbury in 2004. Now it is also available as DVD and a good chance to catch up with all the magic.
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.
This romantic view of the north of England is unsurprisingly endearing and I confess to having felt strangely enchanted by the north myself. But Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is no sentimental drama. Clarke romanticises the north but her story breaks stereotypes of magic. We are not told about James I writing a book on witchcraft or a Scottish king accosted by three weird sisters or about the dangers of being ginger in "those days". Clarke dips her toes much deeper into the unknown waters and casts magic upon the early 19th century - the precise year is 1806. In this age of reason, manners and wars, it is ridiculous to see Lord Wellington keeping a practical magician by his side and give orders to him with such nonchalant authority as he does to his soldiers. Wellington's brief and precise requests, such as 'Move the river' or 'Can you move the forest?', make the very presence of magicians in the Napoleonic wars absurd and displaced. But Clarke is not mocking magic - I more see a rational attempt to experiment with the notion of magic in a new, unexpected context. The magic-related stereotypes that are preserved in the story are unabashed and refreshing, like the "crazy cat lady" scenes which are spectacularly well staged.
There are moments in the story that do not stick or sound convincing enough, or are strangely brought together. To Stephen's objection, for example, as to why he should inherit the English crown - should he kill the King - and not the King's children, the Gentleman simply replies that the latter are all 'fat and ugly'. The oftentimes weird narrative and dialogue are part of this strange world where magic is revealed in a search for logic in magic and even lacks the very magic we associate with magic (if I make sense at all!).
Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange is dashing and charismatic. Eddie Marsan's Mr Norrell manages to evoke all sorts of feelings and effects, from sympathy through comedy to apathy. Norrell is a awkward, reserved little man who lives by and in his books --
'One is never lonely when one has a book.'
But the story repeatedly challenges the stereotype of the perfect bookworm. Strange's practical mind and gift of magic place him in stark contrast to Norrell's cautious reasoning. On a more personal level, Strange is a passionately loving husband - Norrell is almost asexual and unfamiliar with any other warm feelings but love of his library. He feels as bereft when losing his books as Strange his wife.
'I am not about to stand here and summon the greatest magician who has ever lived and say to him, "I offer you all of English magic, apart from, I am sorry, Gilbert Norrell's books".'
The love between Strange and his wife Arabella is most beautiful and genuine, even more so is their friendship and loyalty to each other. Charlotte Riley makes a charming and strong-willed Arabella and Alice Englert is in her element as Lady Pole. Edward Hogg as Mr Segundus is very endearing. I am particularly fascinated by the character of Vinculus and Paul Kaye's portrayal of him. He emerges in the story as a kind of holy fool (yurodiviy in Russian Orthodoxy) evoking awe and aversion at the same time. The Gentleman has to be my favourite character - the mischievous fairy played by the sigh-inducingly handsome Marc Warren. His delivery of speeches, demeanour and appearance are all magic. He is funny, he is seductive, he is wicked and you cannot help liking him!
The visual effects of the film are stunning and testify to the hard and beautiful task that the adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell involved. The creation of the world of Lost Hope is the most astounding achievement of this film. The blue tint emphasises the magical world as atmospheric, dream-like, menacingly beautiful. Magical!
Photo courtesy of RLJ Entertainment.