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