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Friday, June 19, 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: All the Mirrors of the World


So this episode managed to get one key theme of the novel across: that men like Norrell can commit terrible crimes and get away scott-free whilst the marginalized: women, servants, people of colour, and mentally ill (or any combination thereof) are ignored and quietly shuffled away – out of sight and out of mind.
In fact, the adaptation has actually expanded on Lady Pole's breakdown by depicting the immediate aftermath of the shooting, which only serves to raise the question as to why exactly no one has confronted Norrell on the obvious correlation between her condition and his magic.
The answer of course is that Norrell is a very important man, and Lady Pole's behaviour is all too easily chalked down to female hysteria – something that's very sad, but not to be investigated too deeply when a gentleman's reputation is on the line.

I recall that in the book there's not a soul who even considers putting two-and-two together about Norrell's potential involvement in Lady Pole's illness, which always struck me as something of a plot hole. Yet my exasperation over the fact it's completely glossed over is perhaps the result of me projecting my 21st century mentality over the situation, and the sight of men forcibly chloroforming  Lady Pole (a scene entirely original to this adaptation) demonstrates she is not only silenced by magic, but society as well.
So finally it would seem the show is ready to show Norrell at his worst instead of as just a fusty old bookworm. Well almost. It's typical of Book!Norrell to complain "you've been asleep for days" to the man who took a bullet for him, but that he immediately says "forgive me" is something only the more self-aware Show!Norrell could have managed.
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As for the scenes with Mad King George, I'll admit that my memories of this part of the book are a little fuzzy. Though I might be wrong, I'm under the impression that Jonathan's meeting with the King and his discovery of the King's Roads are two very separate incidents. The King nearly gets lured away to a little house in the woods while he and Jonathan are out walking the palace grounds, only for Jonathan to cast a spell for their protection.
It plays out a little differently here, with the King being whisked away to a lonely country road where Stephen is nearly forced to assassinate him, only for Jonathan to teleport him back to safety just in time. I feel that this is quite different to what occurs in the book, but though I know I could verify this in a matter of seconds, I'm happy to just go with the adaptation for now. Whatever changes they made; they worked. We get a creative introduction to the King's Roads that didn't feel forced and which led nicely to the scene in which Jonathan uses the pathways himself.
They also handled Drawlight's deception rather well, with the slow unravelling of people claiming to be under Jonathan's tutelage: Arabella mentions Miss Grey, Mr. Tantony appears at the gentleman's club, and finally Jonathan confronts Mrs Bullworth at her home.
One thing I do take issue with is that the young woman ostracized by society and exiled to the countryside because of her affair with Mr Lascelle (and the subsequent ruining of her reputation) has been replaced with the older and embittered Mrs Bullworth. This was not only another example of the double standards inherent in the Regency Era, but also a red flag indicating Lascelle's true nature. For the most part he still comes across as a snotty but harmless dandy. Sure there's his betrayal of Drawlight, but the man had it coming and at this rate the Big Scene between the two of them at the show's climax (you know the one) will seem to come completely out of nowhere rather than something that Lascelles has been capable of all along.
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But if anything, comparing this show with its source material ends up providing some great writing tips. As I've said plenty of times before, Clarke's gift is her mastery of the "show, don't tell" rule. To be more specific, she sustains the mysterious atmosphere of her story by describing scenes from the point-of-view of a character who remains ignorant of information that's already been divulged to the audience.  
For instance, this episode had Lady Pole telling Stephen at his departure that farewells were foolish, as they would meet again later that night. As it's shot from an impartial point-of-view; simply conveying the events of the room, it comes across as a wry joke or a Continuity Nod. In the book however, the entire sequence is told from Mr Segundus's point-of-view, who is suitably baffled at Lady Pole's words. As a result we get that tingle of delight in knowing things which that particular character doesn't.
The moss-oak is another good example. In the book we have no idea what's happening as the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair forces Stephen to fetch the wood out of the bog, only that it's a significant and nefarious event. Here they show us almost straight away that it's a decoy Arabella, and though the sight of her face in the wood serves as a striking visual, there are no surprises as to what's going to happen next. I'll refrain from discussing it further, but the chapter in which the switch is made is my absolute favourite in the book, so I hope they'll do it justice next week.
The only time the show manages to get close to Clarke's trick of holding back information from the reader and allowing them the thrill of figuring things out for themselves is when King George is visited by the Gentleman. It's shot entirely from Jonathan's perspective, so it appears the King is simply talking to himself. And yet at the same time we know from what he's saying that the Gentleman is in the room; that there's danger here that Jonathan remains completely unaware of.
It's like when you were a kid at the pantomime and had to yell "he's behind you!" when one actor tried creeping up on another.
Miscellaneous Observations:
I loved Childermass's vision in the wake of being shot, particularly the raven coming out of his bullet hole in the North Country. These little visual touches are why adaptations exist.
I'm still not completely sold on Stephen or the Gentleman, and I suspect the actors were cold and miserable during their outdoor scenes as they were doing little more than simply reciting their lines to each other. Right from the start I felt that Marc Warren was miscast, and Ariyon Bakare is missing all of Stephen's weariness, desperation, and agonising sense of imprisonment. Mostly he just looks grave and a little confused, not the plaything of cosmic forces.
However, Jonathan's excitement at finding the King's Roads was catching; I only wish we could have spent more time there. But I like the way they're handling the Raven King; he remains elusive and mysterious, a sort of darker take on King Arthur and the promise that he'll one day return. Norrell's hatred of him still seems oddly personal (I wonder if non-book-readers think there's a real vendetta between them that's yet to be revealed) but I like the way he's the catalyst for the schism between Jonathan and Norrell. Not even the promise of forbidden books could dissuade him.
Who is the woman in red?
With this episode, they've finally captured some of Clarke's humour: Norrell's assumption that Strange was able to perform dark magic simply because he wasn't in England; Jonathan cutting short his "I was in the peninsula" remark after Arabella's exasperation at how often he says it, the awkwardness of Jonathan's army companions being in the same room while a marital spat is going on, and Jonathan's response to Mrs Bullworth's list of demands: "forgive me madame, but even the greatest magician who ever lived could not kill the same person three different ways."  
Awkward.
And then there's that intriguing scene of Childermass returning to Starcrosse and asking to see Lady Pole. He was clearly there without Norrell's knowledge, so what was he planning to do? I don't recall any such thing happening in the book, but it was hinted he was trying to garner information from her – which means Segundus's valiant but misguided effort to repel him was not in Lady Pole's best interests.

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