Do you believe in magic? And more importantly for the purposes of this recap, do you believe in best-selling novels becoming BBC! miniseries? Susanna Clark’s 2004 brick of a book—it weighs in at nearly 800 pages—has now been transmogrified (see? magic!) into a seven-part television event. Let’s be clear: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is not a Game of Thrones-level page-to-screen happening. Here there be no dragons (or gymnastic sex; it’s England, not HBO.) Still, JS&MN is an ambitious undertaking, and its makers have clearly spared no expense on castles and cobblestones and other authentic-looking prestige-series trimmings.
Our story opens where the book does: in the fall of 1806 on a meeting of the men of the Learned Society of York Magicians. They have gathered as they do on the third Wednesday of every month “to read each other long dull papers about the history of English magic” (and presumably, to talk about wigs). But one Mr. Segundus, much younger and more earnest than the rest, interrupts. He has recently begun to wonder, he says, “why the great feats of magic that I read about remain in the pages of my books and are not seen on the street or on the battlefield… In short, gentlemen, I wish to know: Why is magic no longer done in England?”
Silly rabbit, you will not be pulled out of a hat! Derisive laughter: “Does an astronomer create stars? Or a botanist invent new flowers?” (Well, yeah, kind of; it’s called cross-breeding. But anyway.) The point, they all agree, is that magic is no sport for gentleman. But Mr. Segundus will not be so easily put off. Determined to ferret out the sneak who keeps stealing his spell-casting special orders from a local bookshop, he traces the source to a Mr. Norrell (played by Eddie Marsan, and, in a running joke, pronounced with a royal r-rolling “No-RELL” by everyone but him—it’s actually the more pedestrian “NORE-uhl”).
Can this jowly little man make real magic, Segundus wants to know? He can, and he will! The Learned Society gathers in the York Cathedral at midnight to see for themselves, and get their wigs pretty much blown off by what they witness: A roomful of statues—bishops and kings and what old-timey Brits might call “fair maidens”—coming alive, moaning and whispering about murder and horses and evil usurpers. (You, dear reader, have undoubtedly experienced similar frights at Knotts Berry Farm circa Halloween, or the House of Horrors in a traveling midlevel carnival. Never mind. If it were 220 years ago and you suddenly had your collar grabbed by a marble pope spewing hell-mouth Latin, you’d poop your britches, too.)
Smash cut to pastoral countryside, and a moderately dashing young man galloping on a white horse; this our Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel)—and he has come to see his lady love, Arabella (British period-piece habitué Charlotte Riley, who is also, by the way, Mrs. Tom Hardy. Which is funny because that angry pope sounds a lot like Bane.) Arabella is fond of Jonathan, but she’s not very interested in marrying a man with no job and no life goals. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to work; it’s just that his father, who is clearly not a big fan of attachment parenting, won’t let him. (Sample pep talk: “You, like your mother, are weak and skittish and doomed to fulfill no function more useful than that of a clothes horse… you’ve proved yourself a failure in everything you’ve done.” Fun chat, Tony Robbins!)
Luckily, daddy dearest’s heart is clogged with more than just nasty comebacks; by the next morning he is doorknob-dead, and Jonathan becomes master of the house far sooner than he could have dreamed. Have you ever seen a jauntier walk away from a fresh gravesite? He practically does a kick-ball-change on that grassy slope.
And back we are again to Mr. Norrell, this time pouting in a carriage. Driving past a snaggle-toothed kook in the street, he feels a jolt of recognition. Is this low-level street conjurer the other half of the pair prophesied at the beginning of the hour, “that one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians”? It’s possible, even if he looks more like a guy who didn’t make the cut at Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean road-show auditions, most likely for personal hygiene reasons.
NEXT: A woman, a cough, and an implied gun[pagebreak]
But no matter. Norrell has more important things to get to: Namely, offer his services to Sir Walter Pole, England’s Secretary of State for War. Sir Pole is intrigued by reports of Norrell’s York Cathedral performance, but those are tricks for housewives, he says; magicians are “not respectable,” and they have no place in battlefields. Their talk is interrupted more and more by a clearly ill young lady coughing in the corner. She is introduced as the secretary’s fiancée, and this cough is clearly the phlegmy Chekovian gun on the mantel. When will it go off?
Not yet, because Norell’s offer has been summarily dismissed, and he just wants to go home and be sad and read a book. But his clever right-hand man, the excellently named Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) will not allow it. They are going to a party, because “powerful gentlemen spend more time at parties than they do in Parliament.” So off they go. Poor Norrell doesn’t want to socialize with these high-bred hyenas, all gossiping about his supposed accomplishments (he cleans dirty linens by magic! He has a rich uncle!). Instead, he ducks into a drawing room to longingly sniff the pages of a dusty tome or two when he is interrupted by the intrusion of two men. Identifying himself, he is greeted with unctuous trills of welcome. Of course he must come out and join the party, and of course he must give them a little razzmatazz, maybe do just a trick or two for the ladies’ amusement?
Instead, he runs out a side door—and comes face to face with that same street magician, even more beardy and menacing than before. (These characters do an awful lot of close-talking for people who look like they’ve never met a toothbrush). The man finally identifies himself: He is “Vinculus, magician of Threadneedle Street, at your service.” He invokes the Raven King, who has foretold the prophecy of the two magicians: “The name of one shall be Fearfulness, the name of the other, Arrogance.” That sounds about right. Norrell turns away, but Childermass is too smart to let this one slide; he goes to the market to find Vinculus again, and confronts him with his own homemade Tarot cards. But what is this? Though Childermass insists there is only one king in the deck, eight kings are turned over, each one with a rorschach blot that blooms more and more into a bird that looks a whole lot like a you-know-what. Quoth the Raven: He is coming, and his spell is about to be cast.
Back at Hanover Square, grumpy-cat Norrell doesn’t know or care anything about this encounter; how hard is it to just get him home to York already, goddammit? That is, until news comes that Emma the Coughing Fiancée has suddenly perished. (Boom, gun goes off.) Dare he resurrect her? It has not been done for 300 years! And it’s so dangerous! For the magician and the subject! “But the subject, as you term her, is dead,” the newsbearer offers helpfully. “What worse fate can befall her?”
Cut back again to Jonathan Strange, now happy master of his hilly domain. There’s a bustle in the hedgerow, and it’s Vinculus, as chatty and hobo-drunk as ever. He repeats the “two magicians” business once more with feeling, makes a few more Nostradamus pronouncements, and scuttles off with a handful of shillings, proffered in exchange for “A spell to make an obstinate man leave London, and one spell to discover what my enemy is doing presently.” Arabella, now back in the picture, seems underwhelmed when Strange presents his newly acquired spell booty. But when the required materials are brought out for the “obstinate man” business—a mirror and “something dead” (flowers, thankfully, not a rodent or mean deceased dad)—and a circle is drawn and quartered, an image shimmers in the reflection: Mr. Norrell. Of course, his anxious little face means nothing to Strange yet. “Well, Arabella,” he jokes. “Good magicians conjure up fairy spirits and long-dead kings. I appear to have summoned the spirit of a banker.”
The banker, it turns out, is very busy: He has decided that he will in fact try to bring the fiancée back to life—and this time, Sir Pole and the mother-in-law don’t scoff; they only nod, wordlessly. Alone in the room with Emma’s corpse, candles flicker, floorboards creak, and a magnificent creature suddenly materializes. The book calls him “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair,” and says he is a kind of fairy. All we know in the show so far is that he has a glorious white pompadour and albino-caterpillar eyebrows and looks like something fantastic Tim Burton dreamed up after eating too much lutefisk.
Thistle-Down Gentleman is reluctant to help, he says, but the last few centuries have been so boring, and this young lady is so pretty. He will bring her back, for a price. “Shall we sign something?” Norrell asks, as if it’s a two-year Sprint plan, not an unholy resurrection. No, says Thistle, but the deal is already done. Emma gasps and chokes. She stirs. She feels fantastic! “I do believe for a moment I may have been dead, though I do not seem to be dead presently,” she marvels. “How unusual.” Laughter, dancing, a finger that appears half gone—part of the price?—but grows right back in front of her eyes. Who cares, more dancing! And: fade to black (magic).