Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
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Based on Susanna Clarke s award-winning novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell reveals mysterious secrets and scandalous thrills between the two men destined to be England s greatest magicians. Spend some time with this diabolical duo in the fantasy story adored by fans and critics alike. Featuring Tony Award-nominee Bertie Carvel (Matilda the Musical) as Jonathan Strange and Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes) as his arch-rival magician Mr. Norrell, the clash between these two British magicians is about to become a dangerous duel of the dark arts where, in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, the real battle is between their oversized egos.
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Especially note-worthy is Eddie Marsan as Mr. Gilbert Norrell in what will surely be a career defining portrayal for him. He is the character exactly as I pictured him: reticent, withdrawn, quietly arrogant, brilliant and perhaps slightly afraid of his gift. Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange is not quite what I envisioned (I saw him as somewhat more dashing and self-assured), playing him as a bit quirky and unfocused but his performance soon grows on you until he seems to become Jonathan Strange as his facility with magic grows. Two other stand-out performances are Marc Warren as the enigmatic, unstable and possibly quite evil Gentleman-with-the-thistledown-hair. This character is mesmerizing in the novel and Warren gives him that quality of unpredictability and brilliance that is often quite chilling to watch. And then there is Mr. Norrell's assistant in magic and public relations, Childermass. He is beautifully played with low-key acerbic irony by Enzo Cilenti, complete with flattened Yorkshire vowels and a strange fascination with the hidden dangers of magic.
Paul Kaye as the bonkers street magician (and possible mouthpiece of another magical dimension) Vinculus, is certifiably insane as the character, yet assumes an unnerving cogency and scary down-to-earth naturalness whenever he engages in prophesy that may prove so dangerous and deadly. All of the many performances are excellent with none of them inappropriate enough to be called failures in portrayal. The sets and costumes are beautiful, with textile and surface textures in high-definition that have an almost three-dimensional quality. The sets are beautiful representations of the period. Especially wonderful is Mr. Norrell's large magical library at Hurtfew Abbey. It has so much personality and charm it is almost another character in the series. You will crane your neck to read the titles on the spines of those rare and ancient books of magic. The special effects are superb. They are naturalistic enough to be believable and the CGI seems to have been used sparingly so as not to disturb the strong down-to-earth grounding in reality of the story and its feeling of complete believability, regardless of how magical events ultimately become. The show could double as a history of the Napoleonic era in England but with magic added as a commonplace, matter-of-fact occurrence.
If you were worried that the book would lose some of its impact and panoramic scale with its transfer to the small screen, you have nothing to worry about. The series has been made with consummate skill from all hands and it is an absolute joy to watch. It is also interesting to note that Director Toby Haynes spoke of Amadeus being a touchstone for the way he envisioned this production. There are several points of similarity between the films, the most obvious being an envy-driven struggle between two talented men. If you haven't read the book yet, I recommend you do so before viewing the series. It will be much clearer to you and you may enjoy the greater depth that knowing the characters so intimately can provide as you watch all of the many events unfold. But whether you read the book or not, the show stands on its own and it is brilliant. I recommend it with the greatest enthusiasm. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is magical in every way.
Rather than being a consistently "good" movie, the production is full of hits and misses. Some of the casting is flawless and spot on. The characters look, talk and act consistent with the book. However there are some rather strange failures that make me wonder whether the casting was wrong - or the screenplay writing - or the directorial advice. The "man with the thistledown hair" is supposed to be a mercurial, narcissistic sociopath. In the book he constantly switches between child-like glee to dark anger; from logic to complete borderline lunacy. It is this mercurial nature that makes him so interesting as a character. In this movie, he is portrayed as a very flat, one-dimensional "evil" villain. I do not believe this to be the fault of the actor - but rather the role he was instructed to play. Norrell was amazing. Strange was just "ok". Childermass was amazing. Drawlight was just "ok". So it went throughout the movie.
The other issues I have with this movie is with plot decisions made in the screenplay. There is always a challenge when you distill literary material for the screen. I think in many areas this production does admirably to move the plot along, and skip background material or sub-plots in the book to fit it into a 7-hour format. However there are several areas where the plot isn't just shortened; it is changed - and in some of those instances the movie fails utterly. The joy of the book comes from the slow build-up of the characters, the background, and bringing many disparate elements together into an amazing climax where all the pieces fit together. The movie... for some reason... glosses over and/or changes many elements in the last chapter of the book for no reason that I could tell. There is an extra ridiculous added scene where the man with the thistledown hair is being shot at, and is making characters dumb, deaf, and blind. Why? The entire lead-up to the confrontation between Steven and the man with the thistledown hair is changed and diminished - and the final battle is such an afterthought in the movie, that they have to explain it in borish, literal dialogue: "this is why you are here: to fulfill your destiny... I am destined to kill you... no don't!... yes I must..." It is cringe-worthy it is so bad and disappointing.
So I must give this production 4 out of 5 stars. My wife, who never read the book, didn't like it at all. As a lover of the book, I found it an amazing attempt that succeeded more often than it failed. But where it failed, it failed spectacularly.
Buy this because I doubt BBC America will re-run it any time, buy the book because it is even better than the series (just don't buy the mass-market edition because the footnotes are too small to read - and the footnotes are a HOOT and provide tons of detail, just like Terry Pratchett's.)