Watch BBC America pull a rabbit out of a hat.
In truth, the network’s new “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” goes way beyond old hat tricks. It is a miniseries about magic that makes magic of its own, and you’ll be dazzled when it premieres Saturday, perhaps to the point of saying, “How did they do that?”
The miniseries, based on the best-seller by Susanna Clarke, is set during the Napoleonic Wars. Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is a reclusive magician living in the North of England. He does not openly practice his craft because magic has all but disappeared from England, a fact he finds regrettable.
The war is taking its toll on England. Nelson has been killed at the Battle of Trafalgar and Lord Wellington (Ronan Vibert) is battling mightily against the French.
Norrell’s manservant, Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), convinces his master to travel to London to lend his services to the war effort. At first, Childermass is one of the few who believe Norrell’s singular skills as a magician.
But Norrell gathers the naysayers together in an empty cathedral and convinces them to change their opinion by causing the statuary to begin moving and chattering away.
In London, Mr. Norrell’s offer of assistance to the war effort is met with derisive rejection, until Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) asks him to bring his recently deceased wife (Alice Englert) back to life. It is a dangerous request, but Mr. Norrell complies by conjuring up a hellish Gentleman (Marc Warren) to effect the revivification, and, hocus pocus, Lady Pole is back, albeit perhaps not quite as good as new.
We’re also drawn into a parallel story of a ne’er-do-well named Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) who is flailing about in life trying to find a worthy profession in order to secure marriage to the beautiful Arabella (Charlotte Riley). His course is set when he meets grubby street magician named Vinculus (Paul Kaye) who tells him he will not only become a magician, but one of the greatest practitioners of magic in the country.
Works for Jonathan.
At first, Mr. Norrell is warily pleased to have a companion in what he sees as the high art of magic, but inevitably, their relationship becomes a rivalry.
The series was created and adapted with extraordinary care by Peter Harness and directed by Toby Haynes, who exhibits a wonderful eye for the script’s mix of drama, post-Dickensian characterization and sly humor. Every performance is a winner, from Marsan’s mousey Norrell, to Carvel’s brash Jonathan, to Englert’s increasingly mad and self-destructive Lady Pole.
All of this is enhanced by exquisitely executed special effects, beginning with those chattering statues, but also including Jonathan’s jaw-dropping success at righting a foundering ship while standing on the shore. And those are just the headline tricks. The series is filled countless smaller effects, proving beyond a doubt that magic has returned to England and, for seven episodes, to summer television as well.
“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” a seven-part miniseries, premieres at 10 p.m. Saturday on BBC America.
Win the book
We have one gigantic copy of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke to give to one lucky reader. If you’d like to win it, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight Thursday (June 11) and include your mailing address. Please put the word “strange” in the subject line.