Tuesday, November 24, 2015

I Am Strange

Close viewers of BBC America or just anglophiles in general may have noticed this past summer that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell got the miniseries treatment from the boys over in London.  Because I love a miniseries and alternate history, this one was high on my must-watch list. And then, natch, I didn’t get around to it until after the weather started to get sucky. Sigh. At any rate, the miniseries was glossy, composed, and very, very English.

Before I say anything else, I should mention that I actually haven’t read the book, so my thoughts are purely limited to the TV show. My understanding is that, despite the show’s seven hours of total screen time, there are still loads of plot points and character bits from the books that were condensed, eliminated, or otherwise altered in the final product. Though, honestly, given the show’s obsession with pondering over what it means to be English, I have to imagine that’s for the best. (Readers, please correct me on this if instead you believe what was actually eliminated was more germane to the plot.)

At any rate, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in 19th-centruy England during the Napoleonic Wars. It presents an alternate history of England where magic, formerly thought to have been eliminated from England a few hundred years before, has begun to make a comeback in the form of Mr. Norrell, a fussy English gentleman who has gleaned how to work magic from his massive collection of books. Being the only Magician in all of England, he somewhat reluctantly goes about reviving the practice of “English Magic”, offering his services to Lords and Royals as he can find them. Mr. Norrell is fastidious about preserving the English decency that he feels magic requires, though to be fair we never really see any examples of what non-English magic would be or why it would be less preferable.

"Yes, yes. Much magic. Quite special. Tea, please?"

Just when Mr. Norrell is about to make good on his fame and fortune as the sole Magician in the land, in comes a young gentleman of property (of course) named Jonathan Strange. Strange it seems has also become awakened to magic after hearing a prophesy from a street vagrant. Like you do. Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil, though the two initially disagree about the importance of a character known as The Raven King. Strange believes The Raven King to be the source of English magic, whereas Norrell sees him as sort of an enemy of the state for practicing a wilder, less organized (read: less English) magic. This small theoretical difference eventually grows into a much bigger rift that generates much of the action for the story.

"Mine is a dashing and brazen magic, much like my waistcoat."

Things are further complicated when Norrell, somewhat out of his depth, is asked to resurrect the wife of a prominent Lord. In doing so, Norrell brings forth The Gentleman, a fairy who agrees to revive the Lady, but at a cost of half of her life.  Unable to admit defeat, or that the magic that returned the Lady to life wasn’t proper English magic but the magic of Faerie, Norrell allows the Gentleman more interest in the “real” world. The Gentleman also soon develops designs on Strange’s wife Arabella as well as a servant in the Lord’s house. And from there the fun starts.

Pictured: Not David Bowie.

The story begs and borrows a lot from earlier English literary traditions. Strange is a classic Byronic Hero; the emphasis on structure and Englishness flies straight out of the Regency and Victorian periods where England was the unquestioned capitol of the world. As such, it spends much of its time focusing on bringing those concepts into a fantasy story, allowing the more fantastic elements to serve as stand-ins for England, its virtues, and its faults. Which sounds incredible, but after about hour four you really do start to feel a little like you’re listening to a stuffy literature professor ramble on about the Romantics when all you really want to do is go outside because it’s such a nice day out.

Plenty of aspects of the show work very well. It’s gorgeous to look at with a very refined and specific art direction that is quite eye-catching. The visuals are lush, costumes are gorgeous, special effects FAR better than I thought they would be. Performances are strong, particularly Eddie Marsan as Mr. Norrell, who nails the fussy, quick-to-offend, yet vulnerable and self-doubting character so ridiculously well that I was completely ambivalent about how to feel about him the entire time watching the show. He’s not exactly an antihero nor a hero outright; that the actor is able to walk the line between someone you really want to know more about and someone you just want to punch in the face is impressive and keeps you paying attention to him.

There's also a lot of dancing at a supernatural ball in Hell. Seriously. 

Where I think the show falters is in taking what is arguably an incredibly immersive reading experience and translating it to a viewing experience that doesn’t have the same heft. The novel takes a story about defining what it means to be English and makes even that process as English as possible, purposefully opting always to describe the magic in the most mundane and muted ways possible. The novel also contains more than 200 footnotes, giving it the veneer of a researched scholarly paper and further bolstering its detached, English sensibility.

Did I mention there are also zombies?

That creative interpretation of a fantastic story is wonderfully ironic on the page and doesn’t translate at all to the screen. Which is understandable. It’s not a good idea, cinematically-speaking, to tell a story about magic and then downplay the magical effects. So where the book would take an almost distasteful approach to describing a scene where Jonathan Strange conjures horses out of sand and sends them charging into the surf to right a frigate that’s shoaled just off the coast, the show is left with no option but to make this a fantastic event.

All of this will depending on your need for the show to be faithful to the book, of course, or your affection for the experience of reading the book to be accurately recreated in your watching of the show. Classic Your Mileage May Vary situation.

Bottom line: If you desperately can’t wait for the Harry Potter prequels to come out and really need a good dose of English people talking about magic and you’ve always nursed a crush on Count Vronsky, Mr. Rochester, or any other literary brooder of that era, this is a fun way to spend seven hours of your time. 

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