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JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL Review: Magic Has Returned to Television

Looking to be charmed by both magic and performance? Like a somehow-more-magical iteration of Doctor Who in vibe and style (one of the ones where they travel to the past and have a real rouser of a time), Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — the BBC miniseries incarnation, not the Susanna Clarke novel — is a bit like Harry Potter for the twentysomething set, hoping to be dazzled by both art and artifice in the face of the Napoleonic Wars.

For those who need a primer, here’s a start: centered on two magicians in England from whence magic disappeared hundreds of years prior, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) and Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) are two makers of necromancy with very different ways of doing the deed. Norrell has a desire for order and education — preferring hard work over all — whereas Strange has come forth as a natural talent, eschewing rules and the like for fits of the fantastical.

The duo become fast frenemies, with Norrell taking Strange as his apprentice to keep him under his thumb as they craft illusions (Michael) to confound their French adversaries. What follows is an adventure that’s as wild as it is unwieldy, and chockablock with visual goodness. The visuals of the show are — outside of its main actors’ charms and chops — perhaps its greatest strength, weaving the magic in such a way as to transport you into this alternate-reality world.

Something that didn’t totally come through, however-slash-unfortunately, is the charm of the book’s language. Clarke is a master of mixing up styles in order to craft an aura in the Strange tale. Her playfulness with the written word is half the charm of the book itself. Which, to be fair, is a near-impossible task to then translate to the screen. Because how would one craft a story that captures Clarke’s levity-filled, whimsical writing style? Bringing the feel of 19th century prose and extensive footnotes to the screen is a near-impossible task (we’d assume), so creator Peter Harness did a fine job making up for it in how the entire series is structured. But the storytelling ultimately lacks that Clarke-ian je ne sais quoi.

Be forewarned: the story has been structured and condensed in a way that purists fans of the source material may not particularly like. But if you take it for the entirely separate medium that it is (TV versus book! Get familiar!) and let it do its thing, you’re sure to have nothing less than a totally delightful time.

Because Carvel and Marsan are Strange and Norrell in vivid technicolor, imbuing a life into these men that — in this particular reader/watcher’s opinion — exceeds their characterizations in the book. You can tell how much Carvel loves the character (as he mentioned in our interview with him cough cough), and Marsan is more Norrell than I’d ever realized. This is less a story than it is a study in the balanced nature of life itself, told as a fantastical rote. As folks like Arabella (Charlotte Riley) and the Gentleman (Marc Warren) arrive on the scene, the world continues to expand with colorful abandon. If we could live in a world as richly colored and characterized as this, we’d be very, very happy.

What are you most looking forward to about the Strange & Norrell adaptation? Let’s hear it in the comments.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell premieres on BBC America on Saturday, June 13th, 2015 at 10PM.

Alicia Lutes is the Associate Editor of The Nerdist and is 42.9% magic. Find her on Twitter @alicialutes.

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