When Jonathan Strange easily conjures a thundering herd of horses out of sand to save a beached ship, the strained expression of his mentor, Mr. Norrell, betrays both jealousy and fear that the student has overtaken the master.
The rivalry between the two magicians is the central conflict in “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” debuting at 9 p.m. June 12 on BBC America. And although that storyline is slow to boil—the scene above comes in the third episode—this seven-part miniseries is anything but boring until then. It’s an intoxicating potion of period drama, gothic horror, fantasy and mystery.
Adapted by writer Peter Harness and directed by Toby Haynes from Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, the story benefits from enchanting performances by Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan in the title roles.
As the story opens in an alternate England of 1806, magic exists but hasn’t been widely practiced—or practiced well if you ask Norrell—for nearly 300 years. Norrell is devoted to the study of magic, having spent years selfishly hoarding books on the subject in his Yorkshire mansion. He shares his scholarly pursuit with members of the York Society of Magicians, but unlike most of that learned bunch, he believes magic should move from the theoretical to the practical. Through his studies he has become, in his own words, “a quite tolerable practical magician.”
And how. Norrell terrifies the stuffier members of the York society with a spell that brings the stone statues of a local cathedral to life. Now the talk of London, Norrell reluctantly agrees with his manservant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), whose sinister countenance might foreshadow dark intensions, to move to the big city and offer his services to the British war effort that is currently losing to Napoleon’s French forces.
Marsan, who also stars in Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” plays Norrell as a fussy toad of a man whose introversion and bookishness hide dangerous wells of vanity and pride. He wants to ensure respectability for magic, but more importantly he wants to be recognized as the only magician in England.
His ambition leads him to strike a sinister bargain with a creepy fairy called The Gentleman (Marc Warren) that will haunt him and those around him. The Gentleman revives the dead fiance of war minister Walter Poole and Norrell gets the credit, thus ensuring that Norrell can work his spells to help England defeat France.
Just as Norrell gets the recognition he so craves, another practicing magician emerges. Jonathan Strange (Carvel) has only come to learn of his abilities recently through the intervention of a street conjurer, but unlike Norrell he’s a gifted, natural talent with loads of charisma and an eagerness to show off.
Norrell takes Strange on as an apprentice, creating a 10-year course of study that the impetuous, impatient Strange balks at following. Soon the newcomer outdoes his master with the horses made of sand and thus woos all those military and society muckity-mucks whose approval Norrell had just gained.
Their newly sparked competition represents the ages old battle between scholarship and innovation, reason and romanticism, intellect and emotion.
Although Carvel and Marsan are surrounded by wonderful supporting performers, not to mention sumptuous set design and freaky fun supernatural elements, “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” is at its best when the two magicians’ rivalry takes center stage.