Review

'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell' conjures literate magic world

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
Review: The TV miniseries 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell' with Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan is magical fun

It is tempting to view "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" through the prism of "Harry Potter," but as with so many temptations that would be wrong.

Like the Potter series, the seven-part adaptation of Susanna Clarke's historical fantasy series/booster seat (the novel is almost 800 pages, often densely footnoted) does imagine the presence of practical magic in England. The miniseries, which premieres Saturday on BBC America, also comes with spells read from impressively bound books, eerie interiors, other-worldly creatures and weather-challenged skies.

But there the similarities end. Magic is employed to great dramatic effect — talking statuary, thundering horses conjured from sand — but the TV show's themes are very adult. And by adult, I do not mean (for once) grisly violence and graphic sex — this is not the magic of "True Blood" or "Penny Dreadful" either.

Instead it is an examination of power, morality and manners, of social mores and individualism. For much of the first three episodes, the main tension is the eternal one between scholarship and innovation: Is it nobler to be an expert or a practitioner?

This may sound devastatingly dull in a world where dragons roast dozens in a roar and werewolves adorably navigate senior year, but it absolutely is not. Infused with the considerable talents of Bertie Carvel and especially Eddie Marsan in the title roles, Peter Harness' adaptation is, like the book, a deft combination of Dickensian satire, Austenian wit and Gothic anxiety.

For those put off by beheadings and orgies and even for those who are not, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" is a welcome return to literate magical fantasy.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the story exists in an England where magic is universally accepted as real but extinct, something to be discussed theoretically and studied historically, like ancient Greek or Latin.

But as the Learned Society of York Magicians, a group that might easily share a glass of rum punch with Samuel Pickwick and friends, quickly discover, magic is not dead. There is one who practices it yet: Mr. Norrell (Marsan), a glum but self-important toad of a man who has spent his life holed up in his fine house keeping magic alive and to himself.

Prompted by one of the younger members of the Learned Society as well as his own servant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), Norrell gives a demonstration of his skill that quickly makes him the talk of London. Reluctantly taking a house there, he offers his services to the British army, currently in danger of losing all to the French.

Just as he has established himself as the country's only magician, another emerges, seemingly in answer to the prophesy of a wild-eyed street conjurer. Jonathan Strange (Carvel) is everything Mr. Norrell is not — intuitive, impetuous and extremely human. He finds his talent by accident and takes to it mostly because it offers him enough professional focus to win Arabella (Charlotte Riley), the woman he loves

Though he comes to Mr. Norrell as an apprentice, their relationship turns competitive, as much two versions of England as they are two sorts of magicians. Though a proponent of "respectability," Mr. Norrell is a vain little man who, early on, practices a bit of unwise magic that introduces a destructive supernatural creature into the world as well as the notion that perhaps magic was abandoned in England for a reason.

Marsan, who also stars in "Ray Donovan," is as always reason enough to watch. Able to intrigue and repel with a single heavy-lidded glance, his Norrell is a conundrum whom neither the story nor the actor seem in a hurry to explain.

Providing counterpoint as Strange, Carvel's often manic energy is set to quizzical roil. Both are surrounded by a coterie of odd, amusing and disturbing characters who make the story familiar and like nothing you've ever seen before.

Twitter: @marymacTV

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'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell'

Where: BBC America

When: 10 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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