Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

jonathan-strange-and-mr-norrellBy John Ruberry

It’s time to take a break from politics.

Many times while surfing on Netflix I came across a recommendation to watch the seven-part 2015 BBC One miniseries, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is described as such: “In 1806 ambitious magician Norrell leads a revival of practical magic in England and ignites a fierce rivalry with bold young conjurer Strange.” If that sounds like a dopey show, well, that’s what I thought too. But I yielded to the luring and tuned in. I’m grateful that I did.

Magic in the alternative universe of Strange and Norrell is not smoke-and-mirrors and rabbits being pulled from hats, it’s a neglected scientific discipline that for unexplained reasons was abandoned in England in the early 16th century. But Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan), a magician from York, becomes a national sensation when he brings to life the statues of  York Minster Cathedral and, in his only use of dark magic, brings back from death the future wife of a prominent member of parliament, Lady Pole (Alice Englert).

But just as in another alternative universe where humans can sell their soul to the devil, the dark side, in this case a mysterious being known as the Gentleman (Marc Warren), sabotages the transaction and establishes Norrell’s second rivalry.

Norrell offers his services to fight the French and their allies in the Napoleonic Wars, although only Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) directly utilizes magic at the side of the Duke of Wellington (Ronan Vibert), who is initially skeptical of him. Included in the broad historical sweep of Strange and Norrell is the blind and mad King George III, and although not by name, the anti-industrial Luddites.

The rest of the cast is wonderful, particularly Ariyon Bakare as a mysterious butler and Vincent Franklin as the duplicitous promoter of Norrell and Strange. The special effects, with the exception of the ravens in the last two installments, are first rate.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a welcome diversion from the usual, and it’s a particularly good series for binge-watching.

Besides Netflix, the mini-series is available on many on-demand systems and on DVD.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.