If the synopsis for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell sounds like a comedy to you, you’re not alone. While doing the usual scrolling and scouring to find a little seen gem on Netflix I could confidently recommend to the So Wizard audience I stumbled onto this BBC Mini-Series. In my mind it was a version of the hysterical What We Do in the Shadows but with magic instead of undead morons.
I was quite wrong on the tone. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is every bit a serious drama. Expertly acted and thrust into the very real history of the Napoleonic Wars in England. In this alt-history England magic was, at one time, a very real and literal thing. It does not exist in some underground society like in Harry Potter, nor is it all around mankind only tapping into a chosen few like The Force in Star Wars. Magic was once a real force of nature that has fallen out of fashion and is more or less extinct.
A society of magicians remains that discuss magic on a theoretical level. Almost as if studying a ‘what if’ without ever delving deeper. This leads the audience to an agitated Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan). Norrell’s goal is not only to bring Magic back to be a real tangent thing, but to make it respectable.
Not far off Jonathan Strange, unaware of Mr. Norrell’s mission, finds he has a natural aptitude for magic. Unlike Norrell he doesn’t spend his time pouring over books and obsessing about history and study. Instead Strange plays with magic, pushes its boundaries, and tries to outdo himself.
A prophecy spread by a vagabond says that two magicians will enter the world.
The two men the prophecy speaks of are where the center of the story, and the interesting philosophies presented within, lay. There is no out and out villain. There is no struggle of good vs evil. Norrell and Strange don’t always agree but the two are perfect counterpoints to one another. The show becomes a debate on the nature of man. Intellect vs emotion. Talent vs natural ability. Are there a right and a wrong way to wield these powers?
The BBC created Jonathan Strange & Mr.Norrell as a seven part mini series. The mini series format is perfect for the story. British television is much better about telling the story, getting in and getting out, without much filler or wasted time. It’s rare a series in the UK goes on for a decade and in many cases it works strongly to their advantage. Having a set amount of screen time ensures adequate time for character development and all the aspects of traditional storytelling.
The seriousness of the story of two magicians is what sells the project. If it was a comedy, it may have worked as you watched it, but the staying power would be minimal. What we got instead was an entirely unique and fresh show. The settings and characters feel so real, since they are thrust into real history, that when the magical aspects come along the audience doesn’t give a moment’s pause. Much in the way that Stephen King tells a story, you are so into the setting and characters that when the extraordinary becomes the ordinary the audience doesn’t bat an eye.
Perhaps another benefit to the mini-series over a recurring series is the budget. The costuming and set pieces are flawless. The period is every bit as well defined as Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. The special effects for the magicare subtle touches that don’t take you out of this very real feeling world at all. The big effects are used sparingly but it never feels like it’s used to keep a clamp on the VFX budget but to keep the magic alive in the viewer’s imagination.
A bit of a slow burn Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is well worth the time. After the first couple episodes you will be hooked and theorizing like crazy where the story could go. From that point it could literally go anywhere, adding a lot to the excitement of the series.