Release Date(s)2015 (August 11, 2015)
Studio(s)BBC (BBC Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C-
Based on the Hugo award-winning 2004 novel by Susanna Clarke, the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell tells the story of the efforts of a pair of unlikely “practical magicians” to restore the great legacy of magic to 19th-century England. Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan, recently of Ray Donovan fame) is a reclusive scholar obsessed with making magic respectable again but determined that it be done on his terms alone, going so far as to purchase and horde every available book on the subject of magic in the British Isles to ensure it. This is to the great frustration of Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a previously directionless fellow who decided to take up the profession after “a man under a hedge told him” he was a magician. Strange has a natural talent for magic but, with nowhere else to turn for instruction, becomes the pupil of Norrell. Unfortunately, the two men are of completely opposite temperament and have very different ideas about how magic can best be made useful to Britain. Complicating matters further, in his initial efforts to properly introduce magic’s usefulness to His Majesty’s Government in its conflict with Napoleon, Norrell strikes a terrible magical deal with a fairy king (“a gentlemen with thistle-down hair”) which sets the stage for the many inevitable disasters that follow.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’s journey to the screen was a long and difficult one. The rights to a film adaptation of the novel were originally purchased (for a reported seven figures) by New Line in 2004, obviously in the hope of building another Lord of the Rings-like franchise. At one point, Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) was even attached to the project, before the rights lapsed and the effort was abandoned. Thankfully, the TV miniseries format is far more suited to the task of doing justice to the original novel. The BBC’s recent adaptation breaks the novel into 7 hour-long episodes. Whereas the book is an esoteric experiment in blending literary genres and styles, in addition to being a historical fantasy, the miniseries tells the novel’s story in a more traditional linear format. It does, however, manage to capture much of the novel’s texture, spirit, and outlandish characters through smart production design and delightful nuances of performance. Marsan and Carvel are brilliantly cast in service to this effort, as is Charlotte Riley (as Arabella Strange) and Marc Warren (as the gentleman fairy – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Warren ends up playing Sting in some inevitable future biopic). The supporting players are also engaging, particularly Vincent Franklin as the puffed-up Drawlight and Peter Kaye as Vinculus. While I would certainly never recommend this miniseries over Clarke’s novel, which is a naturally richer and more far detailed experience, the miniseries does great credit to the novel and is a much more accessible entry point for those as yet unacquainted with Clarke’s 782-page original work.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is presented on Blu-ray in 1080p in its original 1.78:1 broadcast aspect ratio. Image clarity is excellent, with good detailing and textures. Contrast is just a tiny bit lacking – the darkest areas of the image are never quite as dark as you might like, but it’s a minor quibble. Colors are cool and muted by design to the period, but always accurate, and the series’ CG VFX are exceptionally well-blended into the live action material. Audio is included in a 5.1 English DTS-HD MA mix that offers a smooth and natural sound field. It’s not flashy, but it is nicely immersive and it certainly draws you into the middle of the onscreen action. The dialogue is clear and well blended with the music and sound effects, though I did find it useful on occasion to avail myself of the optional English SDH subtitles to illuminate some of the trickier accents.
The only extra included on this 2-disc Blu-ray set is a 26-minute featurette (The Making of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) that offers interviews with director Toby Haynes (who directed the infamous The Reichenbach Fall episode of Sherlock), writer Peter Harness, producer Nick Hirschkorn, and both Carvel and Marsan, plus a behind the scenes look at the production. It feels a bit short, but there is at least real substance to it. Unfortunately, the UK version of this Blu-ray includes a good deal more, including deleted scenes, outtakes, and image gallery videos. Apparently, some nameless BBC Home Entertainment executive decided that none of this would be of interest to American audiences. To that person, I say: I sincerely hope that the bottom-line savings incurred by this dubious decision was worth denying your customers a better Blu-ray experience.
Still, if its Blu-ray value is a bit lacking, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is at least relatively cheap (it currently sells for just $19.98 on Amazon). It’s also highly entertaining – an intoxicating blend of wild characters and historical drama, with a hearty dose of dark whimsy tossed into the bargain. If you’re coming off the latest seasons of Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, you need something to engage your imaginations until Sherlock returns, or you’re just looking for something different and new to try post Mad Men, I highly recommend you give Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a look.
- Bill Hunt