I am that type of book snob that I would rather read the source material first before watching the show. However, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is still on the waiting list at my local library, and I have zero patience at the moment. Therefore, since Jessica Greenlee wrote her review on the show from the standpoint of an established fan, here’s an additional review from someone who has no clue what the heck is going on. Absolutely none.
The story is set in 19th century England. There is a war going. Which one, I have no idea. My mind always went to mush during AP European History and history in general. A small society of overweight men meet in a club called “York Society of Magicians.” None of them perform magic and are content with just socializing and eating grub. A young,eager magic-lover a.k.a the worst kind of party crasher for this group begins to stir up the question of why there is no magic in England. Initially laughed off so they can proceed with their progress to gout, the young man finds someone who seems to be just as interested in magic: a Mr. Norrell.
Mr. Norrell is timid man played by Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, The World’s End), a man who who would rather read books than be stuck at a crowded party. I can relate to this very well. Encouraged by his butler/manservant Childermass (played by Enzo Cilenti), Mr. Norrell completes a feat of magic involving stone statues in a church (DON’T BLINK!). Childermass’s voice is so deep and powerful that I would do whatever he told me too.
Mr. Norrell now feels compelled to use his magical abilities for the greater good of England and help the war cause. The problem is, magicians are not “respectable” and are just seen as dirty vagabonds. This is made evident by the drunk/pirate vagabond who spews the foreshadowing of the Raven King.This first episode spends a lot of scenes on this Mr. Norrell and his deeds. A few scenes are dedicated to the other name bill: Jonathan Strange (played by Bertie Carvel as seen on Les Miserables). Strange is an eager but restless man who is determined to marry his love. After a sudden (or convenient) passing in the family, he is granted the estate enabling him the means to marry her. The only obstacle: her. From the brief scenes Strange was in, I immediately liked and became wary of him. He seems quick to smile but also has this focused air about him.
Then the focus of the episode goes right back to Mr. Norrell until the last reveal of the episode: Mr. Norrell is not the only magician and he may not be as powerful as he portends. Plus, a mystery reveals itself: Who is the Raven King and what does this drunk vagabond have anything to do with it?
The episode teases whether Mr. Norrell is the bad or good character.He could easily be the antagonist to Strange but it could also be vice versa. One person has the natural ability and the other learned from books (Harry and Hermione, anyone?). However it was obtained, both can do magic. In a time when magic is pretty much non-existent, both characters will be seen as figures of power and I bet the war in the background may come into play at some point in the story development.
From the title and atmosphere of the promotion, I expected more of a creepy and unrealistic mystical vibe.Instead this was an episode that seamlessly joined realistic and magical bits into a very convincing atmosphere. Overall, the show is a good rival for the vibe of Downton Abbey. There is your typical English hierarchy and cultural. Just with dashes of magic and characters.
The show has definitely piqued my interest and further increased my impatience on nabbing the book. Other than the magic bits, the first episode doesn’t really show me what makes this tale so beloved–yet. That is a big yet. All it did was establish the characters and hint at what is to come. Or what I believe is a hint to come. There is a sense that there is more magic, more suspense, and possibly more horror on the horizon. That theme song sequence was leaning more towards the spooky side than whimsy.
For those who are fans of Mary Robinette Kowals books, this might be a familiar setting. Kowal’s books were regency with magic so watching this show was not a hard transition for me.