No matter how familiar you are with the story, the litmus test for any new Romeo And Juliet production is whether it has you hoping against hope that this time, that letter will be delivered and those poor kids won’t die. You know it’s impossible, you know it will play out just as it ever has, but you still can’t stop yourself from wishing.
Watching Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell again in one burst just days after it finished airing weekly, that’s exactly the position I found myself in. Despite knowing exactly what was going to happen, each time a character took a fateful step forwards, I flinched and hoped that this time it would be different. This story has that rare power to engulf.
Which makes it ideal for swallowing in a single gulp. Watched back-to-back, its chapters coalesce into one marvellous, unbroken tale. It’s a bedtime story with tremendous scope; one that will transport you from Yorkshire to London to a Belgian battlefield to Venice, the other realm of Faerie and beyond.
Unlike a whodunit mystery, the pleasure of Strange & Norrell doesn’t hinge on a final revelation; it’s in every scene. And the attention to detail that’s gone in to those scenes makes it particularly rewarding to re-watch, especially on Blu-Ray, which renders it all as bright and new as a freshly minted Regency guinea. You spot bits and pieces you didn’t see the first time around: piles of horse dung on the streets of York, John Segundus’ missing waistcoat buttons, the copy of The Friends Of English Magic that remains forever in Norrell’s mirror after Strange conjures it there.
It’s not only the production design, the detail of which could comfortably fill a plump, beautiful coffee-table book were one to be produced, but the nuance in its writing and performances also reveals more on each viewing. (Mr Norrell adopting Drawlight’s mannered pronunciation of his name when he introduces himself to the King at Windsor. The Gentleman’s rapt gaze at Arabella when he first sees her. Mid-speculation that he was the Raven King, Childermass actually saying the words “I will return.”)
The Blu-Ray’s clutch of deleted scenes provide actual new details to enjoy, too. While none were missed in the final edit, fans will take pleasure in seeing a little more of Jonathan and Jeremy in Portugal (no extra pricy SFX magic, of course, but more of Strange’s frustration at not knowing his work and not receiving letters from Arabella, as well as a tablespoon more of Ronan Vibert’s excellent Lord Wellington). Arabella sketches Jonathan by the fireside in one. Lucas and Davey get a few lines in another. Only a deleted scene between Bella’s brother and Lascelles adds concretely to the story, and I won’t spoil that here.
The best of the Blu-Ray’s other Special Features is a decent talking heads doc including contributions from producer Nick Hirschkorn, director Toby Haynes, writer Peter Harness, SFX artists and members of the cast (Charlotte Riley’s real-life Staffordshire accent is a treat). It’s pleasingly more analytical than the usual ‘everybody was amazing’ banalities these things tend towards, as you’d expect from an ensemble as capable as this one. Among the titbits gathered: The Gentleman’s wig was in part inspired by Sting in Dune, and the impressive Rain Ships of Brest were filmed on a duck pond standing in for the Atlantic Ocean.
Missing from the Extras was an in-depth showcase for, and explanation of, the superb work done by Milk on Strange & Norrell’s VFX. Never less than convincing, from the statues of York Minster to the Battle of Waterloo and Black Tower, the Blu-Ray release could have done more to salute that. Still, the series itself stands as testament to those achievements. As this review is based on screener discs, I can’t comment on packaging as there was none.
Strange & Norrell is one story told in seven parts, and cinema marathon aside (hint hint, someone with the power to put that on), what better way to enjoy it than like this? Crisp, beautiful and captivating. A real joy.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.
Find more about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on Den Of Geek, including episode reviews and an interview with writer, Peter Harness, here.
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