Review: ‘Arabella’ Teases Buildup to Confrontation Between ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’

Photo of Jonathan Strange

Hard times are ahead for Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel). Photo: JSMN Ltd, Matt Squire, BBC America

“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” have decidedly split, as the former (Bertie Carvel) resides back at his family estate with his lovely bride Arabella (Charlotte Riley). Strange is busy working on a book and a series of etchings. He’s still a bit shaken by his harrowing experiences at Waterloo, where he used his magic to kill a hatchet-wielding Frenchman. His own weapon of choice was a giant hand that he conjured out of the mud.

Unfortunately, the Gentleman (Marc Warren) steals away Belle in the middle of the night, replacing her with a fake copy that dies the next day. Stephen (Ariyon Bakare) convincingly appeals to Belle for help with Lady Pole (Alice Englert), but instead he pulls her into the kingdom of Lost-Hope. Belle’s situation differs from Stephen and Lady Pole, because she appears to be enjoying herself at the dance.

Strange, in his grief, appeals to Norrell (Eddie Marsan) to no avail and returns to London to try to publish his book of etchings as a tribute to Belle. However, Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) reveals that Norrell is bent on stopping the book by casting Strange as in league with the machine-breakers. Childermass is an intriguing character; he appreciates that Strange treats him as a magician rather than as a mere servant (unlike Norrell) but he vows to take up the cause of the loser when the dust settles in the upcoming Strange/Norrell confrontation.

“Arabella” seemed to plod along at parts, particularly during the disappearance of Belle. Yet Bertie Carvel shines as the tortured and grieving Strange when he is finally overcome by the reality that he can’t revive his beloved wife. His next plan is to become mad so he’ll be able to see the Fairy King (aka the Gentleman). The more interesting aspects of the episode concerned the subtle changes in the dynamic between Stephen and the Gentleman. Lady Pole insults Stephen as being “poisoned” to do whatever the Gentleman bids (although both seem unable to wrest themselves out of his control). Meanwhile, Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) realize that the pattern in Lady Pole’s stories point to a fairy.

However, it’s clear that Stephen is slowly rejecting the hold of the Gentleman: refusing to engage in the pranks on Strange. Ariyon Bakare effectively captures the nuances in Stephen’s resigned but braver demeanor as he remains sympathetic to the plight of Jonathan Strange. Stephen is destined to become a king and prophecies, at least thus far, have been turning out to be true. The Gentleman is pushing Stephen to be King of England, but what if the butler’s future position lies in another realm?

Check out the “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” tonight to find out what’s next for magic in England.

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