Magic men

BBC Amer­ica’s minis­eries is a deftly lit­er­ate story of two ma­gi­cians in Eng­land.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARY McNA­MARA TELE­VI­SION CRITIC mary.mcna­mara @la­times.com

Mary McNa­mara on BBC Amer­ica’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Nor­rell.”

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 Napo- leonic 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 “re- spectabil­ity,” 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.

Pho­tog raphs by Matt Squire BBC

MR. NOR­RELL (ED­DIE MARSAN)

has spe­cial pow­ers in the BBC Amer­ica minis­eries “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Nor­rell.”

BER­TIE CARVEL costars as Jonathan Strange in the adap­ta­tion of Su­sanna Clarke’s fan­tasy se­ries.

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