JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL
Susanna Clarke writes fantasy that seems less J.K. Rowling than it homages the era and whimsicality of Jane Austen. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is alternate world fantasy an England where magic works but where real historic events and personalities such as the Duke of Wellington and his war against Napoleon, King George IIIs madness, Lord Byron and various politicians of the day mingle or are namedropped. The joy that comes in reading the book doesnt entirely translate on the screen not through any fault of the mini-series in translating it but where you never quite get Clarkes Austen-esque dryness of wit in description, nor any equivalent of the extensive and hilariously straight-face footnotes.
I am happy to go out on a limb and say that Susanna Clarke kicks J.K. Rowling out of the ring. Rowling writes glorified childrens books that somehow ended up being acclaimed by adult audiences who thought their contrived writing and increasingly bloated prose was classic literature. Clarke writes everything that Rowling does with finesse and elegance. Rowling has put little thought into her magic it has a randomness that comes from her making it up as she went along such that you wonder how anything could work in this world when anything is possible; Clarke creates a magic where much may be possible but it is buried in antiquity.
The books success has attracted attention from filmmakers. New Line Cinema acquired the rights in 2004 but, like other massive sized classic works such as War and Peace (1869), The Lord of the Rings, Dune (1965) and Stephen Kings The Stand (1977), the sheer size of the story proves daunting to the task of trimming it down to easy digestibility for the multiplex crowds who are presumed to be in eminent danger of revolting should a film ever exceed two-and-a-half hours in length. Nor does one suspect that the target audience for the book would be the same multiplex crowd that flock to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings; what we have is more the fantasy equivalent of a Georgian costume drama. Thus the tv mini-series adaptation it gets here seems the best place for it.
As such, the book gets a fine and well worthwhile adaptation. Even though some parts of the story are trimmed a little, I dont recall any major plot elements that were missing. The BBC has wheeled out the best of their costume drama tradition. The mini-series looks grand, the costumery and dressings have a richness and colour that looks authentic for the period. Budgetary limitations do come in somewhat when it becomes clear that the use of sets has been minimised in some sections the same two wide-angle shots are used every time someone visits Lost Hope, while all the action there seems to take place in the same ballroom. However, what the mini-series gets superbly is the feel and flavour of the story. The dialogue turns with the dry elegance of Clarkes writing, the characters are all given three-dimensional life. The effects team deliver the magic sparingly but there are some great set-pieces especially the scene with Bertie Carvel conjuring the horses of sand to right the stranded ship, or one throwaway effect where a pistol-wielding John Heffernan is turned to china. The story sweeps across a wide canvas that concerns friendships, prestige and acclaim, a devils deal, the philosophical debate between tradition-based learning and wild creativity. Its a beautiful and big story and it works extremely well on the small screen.
The mini-series comes with an excellent cast. Eddie Marsan is one of those actors who has a recognisable face but is considered too ugly a mug to ever gravitate to leading man status. He has been in a heck of a lot of things from The New World (2005) to Mission: Impossible III (2006), V for Vendetta (2006) and Hancock (2008) to several Mike Leigh movies and is probably best known of recent as Inspector Lestrade in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. Here he almost disappears inside the powdered wig and rises out of it to give a magnificent performance of repression and pettiness. Opposite him, relative newcomer Bertie Carvel seems to be channelling something of the boyishly lost puppy dog charm of comedian Alan Davies. His is a character that starts out as seeming almost a comedic foil before winding through some fascinating places to emerge as the real hero of the show. Of the rest of the cast, all are excellent. You would swear that Marc Warren as the mischievous gentleman with thistledown hair is a younger brother of Malcolm McDowell. The best of many great performances in the show would have to cite as being Ronan Vibert who delivers a magnificently pompous Lord Wellington.