By Jeff Jensen
June 11, 2015 at 01:15 PM EDT
Matt Squire/BBC America

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the 2004 fantasy opus by Susanna Clarke, is a sprawling saga about 19th-century frenemy magicians who revive the art of “practical magic” after years of its being merely an academic pursuit. They help win the Napoleonic Wars, they bargain and battle with sinister faeries conspiring against the crown, they try to protect Blighty from the legendary Raven King, and more—it’s a long book. It’s also a book wherein storytelling helps make the meaning: Clarke’s pastiche of period styles accentuates her commentary on English identity, and hundreds of footnotes chronicle the history of magic. It’s the novel Hogwarts-lit nerds read during their postmodern Pynchon phase.

This adaptation doesn’t offer a filmmaking equivalent for Clarke’s storytelling voice, but writer Peter Harness (Wallander) and director Toby Haynes (Sherlock) conjure a smart streamlining and handsome staging. It nails the portrait of two significance-starved wizards and their hubris. Eddie Marsan (Ray Donovan) is perfect as Norrell, a frumpy-grumpy owl bent on preserving magic by hoarding it. Bertie Carvel (Les Misérables) as Strange— a reckless prodigy—is lighter than I imagined the character, but his humor serves his morph from romantic hero to Romantic antihero. While short of magical, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is nonetheless an enjoyable enchantment. B+

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