The task of successfully adapting Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s girthsome “tale of the fantastic”, as Neil Gaiman eloquently described it, was always going to be a big ask, but while Toby Hayne’s ambitiously lavish seven-part series has enough moments of intrigue to keep us hooked for a little while longer, last night’s first episode was far too po-faced to truly capture the imagination.
The opening was certainly impressive, swiftly establishing it’s 19th Century England setting where magic is real but rarely practised and only discussed during the monthly meeting of the Society of Magicians in York. We’re soon introduced to Eddie Marsan’s Mr Norrell, “quite a tolerable practical magician” by his own account, who begins his mission to return the craft to a state of respectability by conjuring the statues of York Minster to life.
It’s a wonderful sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a Harry Potter movie and Hayne, a seasoned director of Doctor Who episodes, works wonders with his budget to add an exquisitely cinematic sheen to the entire production with the crumbling cobbles and cottages of a pred-industrialised England realised with a quality detail to rival that of any Hollywood blockbuster.
The series also features superb performances from the entire cast with Marsan bringing a determination and moral fortitude to the otherwise meek and introverted Mr Norrell, while Bertie Carvel yet again excels, this time as foppish land owner Jonathan Strange, who abandons his easy-going lifestyle to study magic after learning he is destined to become a great magician.
These titular characters are rivalled by a marvellous supporting cast that includes Vincent Franklin as the fabulously pompous Christopher Drawlight and an episode stealing turn from Marc Warren as the demonic Gentleman with the thistle-down hair, an otherworldly creature summoned by Norrell to bring a young lady back from the dead as part of a Faustian pact that is almost certain to go awry.
And yet, despite all the intrigue and mystery that this early exploration of the magical realm offers, it must be said that the opening episode is worryingly underwhelming. Its biggest problem is that the novel’s playfully arch narration, which deliciously satirised 19th Century literary styles, simply doesn’t translate to the small screen, while the disparate nature of Norrell and Strange’s narratives makes it difficult to become fully embroiled in the drama at this early stage. For all its charming visuals and talented performances, this is a magical drama that feels frustratingly mundane.
Click here to watch Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Episode One on BBC iPlayer