The first episode, or chapter as they have been titled, of “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” feels like being the guest of honor at a party of strangers. It’s a bit of a whirlwind. You are introduced to one character after another. You wonder if you will be able to remember all of the names and faces, but with expert writing, and excellent direction, by the end of chapter one, you can’t wait to find out where all of your new friends’ journeys will take them.
York Society of Magic
The show opens with Mr. Segundus futilely attempting to work a spell. Mr. Segundus wishes to be a practical magician. He desires to know why magic can no longer be done in England and seeks answers at the York Society of Magic. The men of the York Society, who are interested in magic only as an academic endeavor, laugh at Mr. Segundus’ dreams to bring practical magic back to England. Mr. Segundus finds only one kindred spirit, Mr. Honeyfoot. After finding out that a man named Mr. Norrell has been buying up all of the magical texts in England, Mr. Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot decide to pay Mr. Norrell, and his library, a visit.
It only takes a few minutes to realize that the casting of Mr. Norrell is brilliant. It’s hard to imagine anyone else other than Eddie Marsan playing the role. He is able to strike a perfect balance between pretentious self-confidence and vulnerable anxiety.
Mr. Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot are encouraged concerning the fate of magic after meeting the self-proclaimed, practical magician, Mr. Norrell. The York magicians are not so easily convinced. The men believe Mr. Norrell is a fake, so Mr. Norrell invites them to a Cathedral where he promises to show the men what he can do. Mr. Norrell requests that the men sign a contract. If Mr. Norrell proves to be a modern practical magician, the society must disband, and the men can no longer study magic or call themselves magicians. All sign except for Mr. Segundus who cannot bear to give up magic.
Mr. Norrell surprises the men by bringing the Cathedral’s statues to life.
There are some good effects here, but it is toned down from the terrifying, chaotic cacophony that was described in the book. This makes sense though for a TV series. You don’t want to use your most dazzling effects in the first thirty minutes. You need to start slow and built up to a spectacular finale.
With a dose of confidence, Mr. Norrell moves to London, and attempts to convince the government that magic would be an asset to the war against Napoleon.
Mr. Norrell meets Sir Walter Pole, Sir Walter’s mother-in-law-to-be, and his ailing, soon to be bride Emma.
Sir Walter does not sugar coat his opinion. He tells Mr. Norrell that magic is not respectable and there is no place for it in war.
Unlike the book, where Jonathan Strange is not introduced until the story’s middle, we jump right into meeting him in the first episode of the mini-series. Jonathan is instantly likable. It seems like director Toby Haynes put some of his past “Doctor Who” experience to use as Jonathan has a little bit of an eleventh Doctor vibe.
Jonathan, who is trapped under the thumb of his cruel father, is trying to win over the love of his life.
Arabella complains that Jonathan is directionless, lacks purpose, and might be a little too fond of drinking. In a nutshell, Jonathan is not marriage materiel. Just when he seems most despaired, Jonathan’s horrid father dies, freeing Jonathan to pursue whatever he wishes. He hates farming, but it seems the best husband materiel career option… until Jonathan meets Vinculus.
Vinculus is a London street magician, who is believed to be a complete shyster.
While trying to escape a party, Mr. Norrell is accosted by Vinculus. Vinculus delivers a prophecy about two magicians, one of the magicians we can assume is Mr. Norrell, who will bring about the return of the Raven King, who was once the most powerful magician alive.
One wonders how a man like Vinculus, who is only slightly above a vagrant, came across such information? Can the information be believed?
Mr. Norrell calls shenanigans on Vinculus’ prophecy, especially since the prophecy involves someone Mr. Norrell despises, the Raven King.
After delivering the prophecy to Mr. Norrell, Vinculus sets off on a journey. He must deliver the prophecy to the second magician, who, of course, is Jonathan Strange.
While Mr. Norrell is infuriated by Vinculus’ words, Jonathan receives the prophecy with a mixture of skepticism and intrigue. Being a magician would give him direction and purpose. It would be more interesting than being a farmer. Jonathan decides to give magic a try and is surprised that he is able to work a spell. The spell used is one that allows him to utilize a mirror to view his enemy. In the mirror Jonathan Strange views Mr. Norrell.
Mr. Norrell has given up on London. He can’t figure out a way to make magic respectable in the eyes of the government, until he hears the news that Sir Walter Pole’s fiancé is dead. Mr. Norrell waffles. Reviving Emma from the dead would prove his usefulness, but the spell can have dangerous consequences for both the magician, and the one being revived. Without knowing any other way to prove that magic is more than silly entertaining tricks, Mr. Norrell finds himself alone in the bedroom of the dead girl, preparing to execute the type of magic he vehemently opposes.
Things turn eerie while he is conducting the spell, and it’s uncertain what terrible thing is about to befall, then The Gentleman appears.
There is something delicious about a charming, well mannered villain. I always pictured The Gentleman as Jareth from the movie Labyrinth, but when The Gentleman appears to Mr. Norrell, he is not as ostentatious as I imagined. I was also not a fan of The Gentleman’s odd echo voice effect. It felt a bit distracting.
The Gentleman is a fairy. We get the impression that he is ancient and powerful. Mr. Norrell needs the fairy’s help. It is the only way to bring Emma back to life. At first The Gentleman will only help Mr. Norrell if Mr. Norrell agrees to allow the fairy to advise Mr. Norrell in everything, and Mr. Norrell must also let everyone know that the powerful fairy is the one who raised Emma from the dead. This doesn’t work for Mr. Norrell. The whole point is to make everyone believe that he alone revived Emma, so the two must reach a different agreement. Bored with his current company in Faerie, The Gentleman asks for half of Emma’s life. She will be a new companion for his amusement. Mr. Norrell believes that this means she will not live to a very old age. It seems fair enough. To seal the deal The Gentleman removes a piece of Emma’s pinky finger. She is revived, much to everyone’s delight, except for Mr. Norrell.
The episode ends on a shot of Mr. Norrell. Written on his face is worry and absolute regret. If summoning a fairy is hazardous to the magician and the person being revived, what perils await Mr. Norrell and Emma in chapter two?