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Friday, May 22, 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Friends of English Magic

Let's get this out of the way first: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell one of my favourite books. Seriously, in my top ten books of all time. (Kanye: "All time!") Having said that, you'll now be expecting me to follow up with: "so my expectations were extremely high for this adaptation" – but no. It's precisely because I love the source material so much that I tempered my anticipation, and as such was able to enjoy this on its own merits – though that's not going to stop me from lamenting all the little things they got wrong. Because that's what the internet is for.

Obviously with a book this big, a little condensing is necessary. And this book is big – I'm pretty sure I could kill someone by hitting them over the head with it if I was so inclined. It's not surprising that Jonathan's first appearance is pushed forward (in the book he doesn't turn up until the end of the first volume), or that the luxurious, leisurely world-building is pared down considerably. And obviously – no footnotes.  
Susana Clarke's novel explores the history and influence of magic within an alt-world version of the Regency era, but in a way that exemplifies the darkness and mystery of the first and the social mores of the latter.
It would appear that this adaptation is going for the comedy of manners angle, foregoing the book's depiction of gentile society underlaid (and occasionally invaded) by the dark and creepy supernatural world for something that feels a little safer. Case in point: the introduction to Jonathan Strange's father. In the book, an entire chapter is devoted to his spiteful treatment of an outspoken servant, sending him on pointless errands, exposing him to physical hardships, all of which is topped off by the man being forced to stand in a room full of open windows in the bitter cold. The twist is that though the servant suffers dreadfully, the morning comes with Mr Strange dead in his chair: "some of what the new manservant had been made to suffer that night, Laurence Strange had been forced to share."
This is portrayed in the episode itself, but it feels very different in tone. The chapter is sinister and chilling, whereas the show involves the servant sneezing and falling about comically, while Strange Senior gives his son the standard "you suck and I'm a dick" speech.
I guess I can understand why they would lighten things up a bit (see also: the first appearance of Jonathan Strange, in which he arrives late to church and makes an ass of himself by peeking through the window) but it altogether means that talk of the Raven King, the subject of resurrection, and the threat of the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair are somewhat muted. I wanted to feel that chill down my spine when it comes to the darkness and isolation and casual cruelty inherent throughout the book – after all it's what Clarke does best. But I didn't; at least not yet.
***
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the book I would give to anyone who wanted a master class on how to show, not tell. Throughout its pages, Clarke gives you clues and hints as to what's transpiring, but leaves you to piece together the whole picture, always holding back just a little so that your imagination can fill in the blanks. It's like reading through a mist, which is especially exhilarating when you figure things out before the characters, or are privy to information that they're not yet aware of.
Here? Well, perhaps a TV show can't help but take your hand and guide you through the exposition. Though there is some subtlety at work – as when Norrell says that resurrection relies "too much on f..." before he catches himself (though in keeping with what I said above about tone, the music for this scene is oddly light instead of eerie and foreboding) – but for the most part all the little mysteries are left out in favour of straightforward storytelling (alas, little girl with the ivy in her hair!)
***
As for the cast, this made me realize that there are different levels to portraying characters, and accuracy is not the same thing as embodiment. For example, Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel manage very fine facsimiles of Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Marsan's Norrell is a man who makes Stannis Baratheon seem charismatic, whose exciting profession is belied by his astounding dullness, and who in his own words just wants to go home and read a book. Meanwhile, Carvel's Jonathan Strange fits the bills as amiable, directionless, almost handsome and a little quirky (or at least his hairstyle is) – and if they haven't quite pinned down his characterization, I'm sure it'll come into focus soon enough. They are perfectly adequate representations of their book characters.
But then there's Childermass. Admittedly, perhaps he was under a little less scrutiny since he's a supporting character, but still. Enzo Cilenti is a perfect Childermass, even without the smile that "looked like a twisted root." The voice, the insolence, the look – he was the character in a way the rest of the cast didn't quite seem to manage.
Let me put it another way: my longstanding irritation with voiceover narration should be well documented by now, and though my mind hasn't been changed by the near word-for-word description taken from the book of the Yorkshire magicians intoned over their opening scene, at least I knew EXACTLY who was speaking, even before Childermass was properly introduced.
Along with Childermass, my favourites are Arabella and Stephen Black. There's not much that can be said about Stephen at this early stage (I had my heart set on Adetomiwa Edun for the role, even if he is a little too young) though I liked the way he silently crossed himself at Miss Wintertowne's resurrection. As for Arabella, this might sound strange but I think that Charlotte Riley is a bit too robust for the part. I've always imagined Arabella as very slight and fair and fragile, all the better to hide her inner strength and resilience. This brief glimpse captured her self-possession and common sense, but not her kindness, wit and wisdom. Maybe I'm asking too much. After all, it's only been one episode.
As for Drawlight and Lascelles, the former is way too over the top, and the latter lacks the necessary darkness (and to be brutally honest, good looks) of his book counterpart.
And then we come to the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. Sigh.
It was too soon after Marc Warren's turn as Rochefort in The Musketeers for me to fully accept him in this role, especially since he plays the part with his usual creepy malevolence. He played the Gentleman's menace as heavy instead of light, and so the whole point of the character is missed. That is to say, the Gentleman is terrifying simply because cannot be rationed with, understood properly, or controlled under any circumstances. In Clarke's book it's just as dangerous (if not more so) to be his friend than his enemy. Dealing with him is like trying to catch a wind in a room full of priceless china – and if any of it breaks, you'll be the one to blame.  
But I didn't feel that otherworldly uncontrollable nature here, and it's nearly impossible to imagine how Warren is going to play the Gentleman's liking toward Stephen. I suspect he'll just up the creep-factor instead of the whirlwind sprightliness that leaves Stephen emotionally exhausted.
***
In short, I liked it and I hold out hope for improvement, though I wasn't blown away and I doubt it'll ever give me the "tingle" that the book managed on a regular basis. There are two types of period dramas; the pristine and the gritty, and this adaptation was wise enough to go for the comfortable, lived-in quality (another viable option would have been for it to veer hard in the opposite direction and go the full Tim Burton aesthetic).
It's portrayal of magic is apt; not as a flashy light show or energy beams pouring out of fingers, but as something very straightforward, achieved with the appropriate tools and concentration. As in Penny Dreadful and Outlander, it feels real.
All this time I've been pronouncing Norrell wrong, rhyming the second syllable with bell instead of gill. I suspect I'm not the only one considering Drawlight's own mispronunciation felt like lampshading.

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