Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: How Is Lady Pole?

Time for another round of "this is different from the book and even though I can understand why I'm still going to have a grumble about it."
Some say that the greatest weakness of Susana Clarke's novel is its meandering pace, even though I say that's exactly what I love about it. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is not a story you can rush; instead you have to savour the world Clarke has crafted and the lives of the characters therein.
And though I'm meant to say of course this sort of thing can't be sustained in a television series, Penny Dreadful is a testimony to the fact that slow and careful pacing is possible in forty-five minutes, a time span that show fills with so much rich characterization and juicy plot developments that it somehow feels much longer.

As I said in my review for the first episode, the book has several chapters that almost feel like vignettes. The introduction to Lawrence Strange for example, could have quite easily been adapted into a short film, capable of standing on its own as an eerie little tale. Here it is compacted into a single scene, and the adaptation continues to churn through swathes of material in a matter of seconds. 
As such, I dearly missed the slow burn of Lord Pole's house being overtaken by the influence of Faerie – the increasingly anxious servants, the mismatched shadows and reflections, the sensation of a forest growing up around the house ... a part of me wishes this adaptation was more ruthless in cutting subplots in order to give itself the time and space it needs to better invoke the book's ambiance.
Besides Lady Pole's inappropriate little giggle at the dinner table, most of this atmospheric charge has been lost, with the fright of the servants being whittled down to a stray reflection of the Gentleman in the mirror and Lady Pole going from giddy and cheerful to "sick of dancing" overnight.
And yet the bell sequence was beautifully done, with Stephen hearing its ring and the audience being pegged as to its uncanny nature by the cobwebs that shrouded it. The sequence doesn't quite capture Stephen's dazed acceptance of the situation (another of Clarke's gifts is her portrayal of certain characters' response to the supernatural; they are often unaware they are dealing with the paranormal and so are caught between doubt and dreamlike sensibilities. It rings very true; that if you were to find yourself in a similar situation, you would just drift along with it) but I loved his first foray into Faerie. The parallel line of trees, the grotesque dancers, and – most of all – the inexplicable shipwreck in the forest. That really captured the spirit of the novel and all its myriad of mysteries that are never fully explained.
That... is a shipwreck, right? Because it looked like one at first glance.
The fact that Jonathan and Arabella are reintroduced this episode as husband and wife should be indicative of the time jumps (though to be fair, the marriage occurred "off-screen" in the book as well) though they do better with the strange friendship/animosity that emerges between Mr Norrell and Jonathan, up to and including the former's attempt to outwit Jonathan, and the latter getting the upper hand by securing possession of several of his precious books.
Yet they've definitely softened Norrell a little, who here is more doe-eyed than stone-faced. This take on the character is missing his avarice and greed, pettiness and jealousy, to be replaced with a love of books for their own sake rather than as vessels of knowledge to be hoarded away so no one else can benefit from them. More oddly, his hostility toward the Raven King was played as though it was a personal grievance that'll be revealed later instead of mere superstition and snobbery – and the fear inherent in all powerful men who can't bear to admit they're aware of even greater powers than themselves.
Arabella also feels a bit reduced; relegated to taking cups and adjusting neckties and being talked over by Jonathan (she gets to tell him "I'm not a three-year old", but Book!Jonathan would have never answered a question on her behalf in the first place). On reflection, it's true that she does have a largely passive role in the book, but it goes to show just how much internal dialogue can flesh out a character's strength and resilience. And I did like her growing suspicion of Mr Norrell, piecing together Jonathan's first spell (when Norrell was revealed as his enemy) with her strange encounter with Lady Pole. She knows there's a connection there, but she has no idea what.
Childermass continues to be low-key perfection; knowing full well what Lascelles and Drawlight are up to and not saying a word out of growing contempt for Norrell.
He's so over it, and it's glorious.
I still feel that Marc Warren is exuding the wrong kind of menace as the Gentleman; whenever he interacts with someone it's more like Uncle Andrew and Queen Jadis from The Magician's Nephew rather than the more insidious unknowable quality that goes beyond any attempt at understanding. He's an alien, pure and simple, with thoughts and motivations beyond the ken of mortals.
But things perked up in the final few scenes. The Gentleman attending the auction is original to the show, and it was a great touch to see Norrell lose track of his surroundings (and almost miss the final bid on the magical books) in his horror at his appearance. And the Gentleman's not-quite-there quality was captured nicely in Arabella declining his handkerchief without full awareness of the man offering it to her.
This same subtlety was apparent in the scene directly prior, in which Jonathan attempts to summon the Gentleman but is stymied by his invisibility. Still, that doesn't stop him from overhearing the Gentleman's words (even if he mistakes it for conversation next door) and inadvertently putting Arabella in harm's way when the fairy is instantly struck by her beauty. And of course, Stephen is standing by to witness the whole thing in silent horror.
And although some of the special effects were a bit dodgy, they managed to capture the outlook of the two magicians to perfection what with Norrell's complete lack of showmanship in lighting the warning beacons, and Jonathan's spectacular conjuring of sand horses in order to right the grounded ship.
So it would seem the show is finally getting its groove, having arranged all the pieces and plotlines, it can now start focusing more clearly on some of the nuances of character and situation. Another of Clarke's strengths is in putting a magical spin on a very accurately rendered depiction of the Napoleonic Wars, so we'll see how all that pans out next week.

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