From its vertiginous position above his head, the camera dives past hermetic, white-wigged magician Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), through the water held by a silver bowl, and into the nave of an ornate church. In the cold, greenish light, the diminutive sorcerer animates the structure’s stone friezes for a society of skeptics—the first magic of its sort performed in England in three centuries, and the opening salvo in BBC America’s disarming adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel.
By turns ghoulish, fanciful, and surprisingly funny, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” conjures up a fleet-footed interpretation of magical realism, poised on the border between prophecies and politics. It’s the best new show of the summer.
Set in England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars—the transporting premiere, “The Friends of English Magic,” opens in 1806—”Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” succeeds in layering the far-fetched with the lifelike, as if Hilary Mantel had written “Harry Potter” or Lev Grossman sprinkled Jane Austen through a book of spells. Adapted by Peter Harness and directed by Toby Haynes, the universe of the seven-part miniseries is so ardently realized, with spikes of Gothic horror and modern humor, stretches of historical precision and thatches of Expressionism, that the notion of Parliament leaning on magicians to support the red coats across the Channel comes to seem almost natural. Of course the campaign relies on zombie soldiers for reconnaissance! is an actual thought that crossed my mind during the most recent episode, “The Education of a Magician,” which is high praise if you ask me.
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The man sent to the front lines in this capacity is Norrell’s fellow practitioner, the sunny, bumbling Jonathan Strange, played by the revelatory Bertie Carvel. With a dashing bramble of brown hair and a slightly lopsided smile, the Olivier Award-winning stage actor is every bit the matinee idol, effortlessly finding the verve in the most anodyne remark. In his hands, “Have you been to Lyme Regis?” becomes a laugh line, and magic becomes a sexy, ennobling pursuit, such that he more than holds his own against the excellent Marsan, who couches his character’s ambition within a finicky, professorial manner. Carvel’s Strange is the line to Norrell’s circle, and it’s the court and spark of their testy collaboration that sets the series alight.
The two central figures in a soothsayer’s grim forecast, Strange and Norrell soon find themselves entwined in London’s upper crust, forced to navigate the public’s false impression of their occult talents as frauds and hucksters desperate to pocket a few quid, and military officials who mistake “magic” for “miracle” in the making of a new strategy. At times the series plays these events for satire, as, for instance, when a hanger-on named Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) purrs the double “R” in “Norrell” with French affectation. At other moments, as when Strange unleashes a herd of gargantuan horses from the sand in order to save a sinking ship, the series basks in the visual drama of the subject matter.
“Everywhere things are going to ruin,” as one patron, Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West), explains to Strange’s wife, Arabella (Charlotte Riley). “Apart, of course, from magic. Magic has become a booming industry.”
Both embracing the fantastical and gently subverting it, thrusting Norrell’s fastidious erudition against Strange’s freewheeling intuition, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” emerges as a feat of extraordinary balance, always holding several ideas in its head at once. The series re-imagines British history as a pitched battle between two approaches to the use of (in this case, magical) power—one derived from science, the other, art. Where the series comes down in the end remains to be seen, but in tying the allegorical, supernatural aspects of the narrative to the historical and psychological realism of its depiction of Georgian Britain, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” manages to divert even its most unwieldy energies toward an arresting complex of ideas about the course of empire.
In order to insinuate himself into London society, for example, Norrell resurrects the recently deceased Lady Emma Pole (Alice Englert), setting in motion a series of unintended consequences, including an assassination attempt and the appearance of The Gentleman (Marc Warren), fairy envoy to a font of dark magic known as the Raven King. With a shock of white hair, long fingernails, and expensive taste, The Gentleman is a rather indelicate figure, and certain of his earliest sequences extend well past the point of usefulness, yet he eventually draws the Poles’ black servant, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare)—and by extension, the viewer—into a reckoning with English slavery and abolition that disrupts the foregoing moral calculus to an intriguing extent.
Indeed, by the end of the forthcoming “All the Mirrors of the World,” which finds both Norrell and Strange soured and compromised by the accrual of power, albeit for different reasons, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” treats the era in which it’s set quite literally as a trip through the looking-glass. Though still propelled by the slightly dangerous alchemy of its two protagonists, by its openness to zombie soldiers, sand horses, and animated sculptures, the series makes clear that even the most artful tricks can be deployed to nefarious ends.
“This act will have consequences, magician,” one character promises, and in the real world of “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” as well as the supernatural one, his note of caution is sage indeed.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” airs Saturdays at 10pm on BBC America through July 25. The first episode is now available for free via Amazon Video.