This review contains spoilers.
When it’s-going-to-be-over-too-soon anxiety creeps in even before the episode title has appeared, you know a TV drama is doing something right. And in its second instalment, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell does a great many things right. (One of which is making the squat, previously unwieldy-looking Susanna Clarke novel seem to glow luminously and whisper “Read me. Read me now” every time I come near the bookshelf. I’m holding out until after the finale, but resisting is not going to be easy.)
Chief of its achievements is the sheer irrefutability of its world. Not a sausage about its faerie realm, fleet of rain ships or enchanted-horse troop feels implausible.
You could put that down to the world-class magic worked by its VFX and design teams (those horses deserve to feature in every BBC drama trailer produced from now until anyone achieves the unlikely task of topping them), but that’s by no means the whole story. Screen audiences are spoiled for technical artistry these days. We’ve seen enough big, shiny robots and superheroes destroying enough big, shiny cities to know that top-notch special effects and sumptuous scenery are no guarantee of narrative coherence or satisfaction.
No, the trick with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is that everything works in concert. VFX, setting, performances, writing, direction, music, the whole shebang. It all combines to create a world so convincing you feel as if you could, like Stephen Black, walk through an ordinary-seeming door and end up there.
“How Is Lady Pole?“ (short answer: not great) gave us our first trip into the realm of Lost-Hope, where The Gentleman compels the resurrected Emma (Alice Englert) to dance each night while she sleeps. It’s a fantastically conjured place, a forest of gnarled trees and a burial ground for ship carcasses whose rib cages and cannons jut into the mist. Overlooking it all are the crooked ruins of one of The Gentleman’s castles, the site of a nightmarish ballroom peopled by dancers in costumes from all eras. Are they native fay, or are they, like Emma and now Stephen (Ariyon Bakare), slaves to other unbreakable bonds?
It’s historically apt for Emma and Stephen, as a woman and a black man in Regency England, to be subject to such will-stripping contracts at the hands of those in power, and it will be fascinating to see how the story weaves together real-world subjugation with its magical counterpart.
The script’s lightness of touch when it comes to these themes is particularly pleasing. Writer Peter Harness has confidence in our familiarity with the politics of the setting, so doesn’t preach or overegg. We’re trusted to implicitly understand that Emma’s £1000 a year makes her marital chattel to Sir Walter. We’re relied upon to see the history of treatment for female “hysteria” in his single turn of a key in her bedroom door. Similarly, we’re expected to flinch at The Gentleman comparing Stephen to his own “ignorant fellow,” and to realize that the sugar in the desserts served at Sir Walter’s dinner table will have come from a slave plantation.
Because in matters of politics, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is no fantasy. Magic may have been restored to its England, but its historical power structures remain intact. Emma and Stephen are both garbed in oppression because of the world they live in, but it’s testament to the script, performance (and no doubt source material) that so far, neither feels like a political cipher.
Mr Norrell too, continues to be a complex creation. Eddie Marsan conveys the character’s pride, delight, dismay and fear with such vulnerability that he’s impossible to dislike (“One is never lonely when one has a book” should be illuminated and hang in libraries everywhere), even when attempting a cowardly cover-up of the devil’s bargain he made with Lady Pole’s life. In his favour, it’s a mistake he appears to have learned from, judging by his refusal of The Gentleman’s promise of power in the name of protecting English magic and its people. Partly despicable, partly honourable, desperately patriotic and thirsting after respectability, Norrell is a satisfyingly complicated knot of a man.
And though he probably could, Marsan is by no means carrying the cast. There’s not a weak link so far. Bertie Carvel is winsomely charming as Strange discovering his easy, instinctual talents on that beach (“Hot rolls and marmalade, anyone?”) or petulantly munching hard-boiled eggs and poking statues on the nipple. Charlotte Riley is clever and poised as Arabella, and Alice Englert could rival any Ophelia you care to name as the distressed Lady Pole.
On top of all that, it’s funny. And scary. Whimsical and complex. Mythic and imaginative and striking. And so, so, English. How can there only be five episodes left? How dare it ever end?