Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (BBC mini-series 2015; Netflix; my local library) is a regency era alternative history detailing the attempt of two “practical” magicians to bring magic back to England.
“We have channelled all of English magic into a butler and then we have shot him!”
Magic was common place in Britain during the era of the mysterious Raven King but for the last 300 years it has been confined to theoretical study only. The fussy, book-loving Mr. Norrell joins forces with the flamboyant, reckless Jonathan Strange to make English magic “Respectable” once more.
Mr. Norrell is aided, cajoled and protected by his mysterious man-servant Childermass, a former pick-pocket who is looking forward to the return of the Raven King.
Jonathon Strange is determined to make his wife Arabella proud of him, but is hindered by Mr. Norrell’s refusal to dabble in anything too outlandish.
Power hungry politicians, the Faerie realm, and the death of Strange’s wife tear the two apart. As they travel from France to Vienna and from Yorkshire to London in order to undo As magic returns and the ancient roads of the Raven King are re-opened the two must decide what is most important, and whether they really will sacrifice everything for a future they may never see.
Mr. Norrell: A party? I wish to go home and read a book.
What I liked:
The task itself seems so small, so indescribably British: make magic respectable. It’s brilliant because it can be described in a single sentence, yet absolutely tears the fictional world apart. It raises all sorts of questions, such as: Why do we desire respectability? Should we? Is there such thing as “gentleman’s magic” – and what lengths should one should go to obtain it?
This theme is subtly explored throughout the film, and can be seen in the poignant moment when Arabella’s brother tries to convince Jonathan to let her ‘go’, let her be buried, don’t try and raise her back to life. “Is this for her?” he asks, “or for you?” (my paraphrase).
It is again evident when Childermass declares that if either Norrell or Strange die, he will step into their role and play the ‘devil’s advocate’ so that English magic remains ‘balanced’.
Not to mention Mr Norrell’s defence, that:
“A magician might (kill a man) but a gentleman would not.”
Arabella and Jonathan Strange
It’s so refreshing to have a couple who actually love each other. Who aren’t torn apart at the slightest breath of a disagreement. Who talk.
So many soap operas (and films, and books and TV series) introduce drama by creating marital conflict. It just seems cheap, so I valued this portrayal of marriage and love.
I think I have a “thing” for secondary characters who hide their true talent in the shadows, are misjudged by most people around them yet are actually working for good. I love how complex they are. How little is revealed in the main narrative about their motives or past.
This is Childermass. Servant of Mr. Norrell, (secret) magician in his own right, and indubitably his own agent.
I value how his interactions with Norrell demonstrate how blinkered the latter is. Childermass takes a bullet meant for Norrell, and all his master is worried about is his own reputation and his secret Faerie deal – going so far as to complain that Childermass has been “useless – asleep for days” during his recovery.
Then a conniving gentleman thrusts Childermass against a wall and cuts him with his knife because Childermass has (rightly) accused his ‘better’ of thievery – and Norrell doesn’t notice, busy with his magical spell. When he does, he is still more concerned with the magic at hand. Luckily Childermass has taken the opportunity to pick-pocket his attacker…
Mr. Larscelle to Mr. Norrell: Can we talk without the servants present, sir?
Childermass: No, let’s not talk without the servants present.
*Mr. Norrell is oblivious*
Mr. Larscelle: … Can we please talk without the servants present?
What I didn’t like so much:
I have nothing against kisses in general… but when all it takes is a single kiss to break a complex Faerie enchantment – sigh. A kiss is not a Get out of jail free card!
The wooden, magical Arabella Strange Look-alike
I just thought it was a bit odd. I mean, does it turn back to wood when it dies? Is there really no difference between the magical creature and the real person? And why was it so important for the enchantment that Jonathan Strange ‘renounce’ his wife?
When the Faerie villain first began to taunt Mr. Black, I thought he was going to turn into a villain himself because he is bitter over his terrible slave past. Thankfully, this (rather cliché) trope was subverted, and Mr. Black remains a hero.
Still, as much as I admire his pleasantness and his fortitude, I’m still disappointed. He had an ‘epic’ story line – nameless slave becomes King of Faerie – but I just didn’t feel it. I don’t think it’s the fact that he (logically) had barely any autonomy, I think it’s because we don’t know what he wants. Does he wish to be king? Does he want to remain a butler? Is he conflicted?
The funeral scene
Christianity here is treated as cultural rather than personal, and it was a large part of society and culture during the Georgian period. When Arabella Strange dies, not only do they include the funeral scene, but also a rather large amount of ‘cant’ – far beyond the usual one-liner about “ashes to ashes” or “I am the resurrection and the life sayth the Lord.” Is it because her brother is a clergyman? I am glad it’s included because it forces us to think but for me it breaks the suspension of disbelief and drags me out of the narrative.
To sum up
This is a brilliant adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s book of the same name. I appreciate the level of historical accuracy, the humanness of the magic and the complexity of the characters.
It’s a gripping, but bitter-sweet drama which makes the risky choice of removing autonomy from characters who would historically have been marginalized, refusing to insert 21st century characters into the 18th century.
This (mostly) pays off, and forces viewers to continue to question and delve deeper into the narrative itself.
Mr. Norrell: No. No. Not my books! No, no, he cannot have my books!
Jonathan Strange: I am not about to stand here and summon the most powerful 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!”
Mr. Norrell: Half of them.
Jonathan Strange: Mr. Norrell!…
Mr. Norrell: Two-thirds.
image courtesy of spoilertv.com