“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” Susanna Clarke’s historical fantasy, premieres tonight on BBC America. However, you may have noticed that the first episode, “The Friends of English Magic,” has been up on the BBC America site since earlier in the week. The series takes a look at the Napoleonic Wars, but not in the traditional vein of a historical drama. We often look back at history and ask how things might have been if we had that additional piece of technology earlier. But what about magic? Don’t mistake “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” for a Napoleonic Harry Potter. Instead, it already foreshadows the dark side of magic and to quote from a popular drama, “All magic comes with a price.” (Extra points if you know the reference.)
The first episode opens with a frustrated Mr. Segundus (Edward Hogg), a young man who attempts simple spells and wants to know why magic is no longer done in England. His curiosity is shared only by one member of a magician’s society in York, a Mr. Honeyfoot (Brian Pettfer from the upcoming “The Legend of Barney Thomson”). Segundus is annoyed that the books he places on hold at the local bookshop are being purchased by a Mr. Norrell. The setup is reminiscent of 18th and 19th century fiction, whereby a secondary character’s curiosity is the device used to hook readers in (or viewers in this case).Eddie Marsan comes across wonderfully as Gilbert Norrell, the studied magician with a huge library. The symbolism of books is rather hard to miss here, with a library serving as a place of refuge for Norrell later at a London party. Then there’s a line that might arise often in this series, “I’ll need to send for more books.” His declaration that he is a “practical magician” offends the York society, whose members demand a demonstration. Norrell delivers in style from the comforts of his library as he makes the statues of York Cathedral speak.
His assistant, Childerness (Enzo Cilenti) gets Segundus to publish an account in the paper and talks Norell into going to London. Norell, spurred on by his own vanity, desires to aid the English in the Napoleonic Wars. However, Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) of Parliament, dismisses Norell because magic is not regarded as useful beyond parlor and street tricks. Speaking of the street, both Norrell and Childerness encounter the creepy Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who talks a lot about a prophecy concerning two magicians and the threat of the Raven King.
Jonathan Strange (Eddie Carvel) is the second magician, marking a strong contrast to the short and socially awkward Norrell with his stature, good looks, and carefree attitude. Yet he exhibits a sensitivity and willingness to help others, such as the incident with the servant at the open window. He’s been hopelessly after a successful profession and the hand of the lovely Arabella (Charlotte Riley), a situation that rings a bit like a Jane Austen tale.
The premiere was moving along rather smoothly until towards the end. Sir Walter changes his mind about when his fiancée (Alice Englert) dies and Norrell revives her. Unfortunately, Norrell is being influenced by the foppish Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) and Lascelles (John Hefferman), who want a share in his fame. His use of a dangerous spell leads him to cut a deal with a fairy, known only to us as the Gentleman. It’s a decision that’s probably going to have a lot of repercussions. Marc Warren is rather ridiculous as the fairy with his large hairstyle and vine-like shirt that just screams 1970s David Bowie. I wasn’t feeling Norrell’s sense of terror at all.
The opening chapters of a novel can often be slow and trying, which could explain the unevenness of this episode. Even though their characters have yet to meet, Marsan and Carvel appear poised to make an impact, whether or not they team up. In any case, we’re bound to find out exactly why magic hasn’t been used in England in years and that answer appears to be entertainingly bleak.