As someone who has read the novel many times, I was anxious about the news that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell would be a miniseries: Anxiously waiting for it, and fearful that it would be done wrong. Judging by this first episode of the seven, “The Friends of English Magic,” the wait was worth it; the fear was groundless.
The question that haunts many of the characters is brought forward at once: What is happening with English magic? Hints of past events are given, and the world has a sense of history already in place, both recognizable from our world (Napoleon is out there) and differing (The Raven King is mentioned more than once). As in the book, the focus is as much on the characters as it is on the question, and these are given ample introduction.
“The Friends of English Magic” introduces all the major players in the tale. I had a wonderful time recognizing each person. They are distinctive and even the ones who don’t match my initial mental image (which is going to happen with any book turned show) fill their roles magnificently. Special notice must be given to Eddie Marsan ‘s pinched, subdued Mr. Norrell, a man who would rather stay at home and read than be a public figure (his only really loveable moments come when he is holding a book), but who is, nonetheless, set on bringing magic back to England and doing it properly, with clear regulation and order. Also impressive is his servant and advisor, Childermass (Eddie Marsa) who brings a touch of cynicism to the task, but who is not quite unmoved by it all.
I do wonder how someone who has not read the book multiple times will find this rapid introduction: The actors are all of them skilled and there is no chance of confusing one for the other visually, but it is a lot to keep track of in one hour. Still, anyone who spends much time watching BBC dramas has to be used to multiple characters and layered plots.
Visually, the premiere avoids the claustrophobia of many period dramas, taking the viewer from a town in York to the countryside, over into a bustling London, and into a variety of interiors. Costume designer Barbara Kidd has taken care to put people in varying styles and colors, lending the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a lived-in feel and giving the viewer something additional to admire. The settings have depth and detail to them—there are background details and personal touches in rooms, no one house looks like the other.
Really, I am having a hard time keeping this review from turning into one long, delighted, and excited happy squee. As it is, I shall advise you to go and watch “The Friends of English Magic,” which BBC America put it online on the 6th, though the official air date is June 13, 2015.
Then, come back and tell me what you thought.
Edit: I asked Toni Adams to tell me what she thought as someone who has not yet read the book. She obliged