Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Episode Seven - Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellBookmark and Share

Monday, 29 June 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 1) (Credit: BBC)Written by Peter Harness Directed by Toby Haynes First transmitted 28th June 2015, BBC One
All good things must come to an end, and the finale of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the most spectacular episode yet. So much happens, with so much nuance crammed in, and so much startling imagery. The ensemble cast, all so good in previous instalments all crank it up a notch here. This is a satisfying end to a big story.

It opens ominously. The mirrors of England have all been smashed by Strange's trick with the ravens, Magic is in disgrace, its reputation in ruins, shouted down by the whole of government. Strange is still in his black tower, Norrell has taken his leave back to Yorkshire, and the Gentleman is still continuing his lengthy, cruel dance.

In fact, reputation turns out to be a major theme, it's hinted at in previous episodes, but really comes to the fore here. The disgraced Drawlight, his clothes in tatters, meets with Lascelles - who really has turned out to be a nasty piece of work. Drawlight has been reduced to a tragic figure, determined to deliver Strange's messages (and Lady Pole's missing digit). Lascelles refuses to let him near Norrell, and kills his former associate to preserve Norrell's reputation, and therefore his own.

Lascelles then visits Norrell, where Childermass quickly cuts through the bluster to the truth. Lascelles pulls a knife on Childermass and cuts his face (Norrell is too busy attempting to erect a magical barricade to notice), but Childermass takes the opportunity to steal back what Lascelles has taken. The two men neatly spell out that this version of England truly has its own North-South divide, Lascelles sees himself as a 'gentleman', and Childermass as 'from the gutters of Yorkshire'. Childermass, a man who's had a belly full over the last six episodes, calmly reminds Lascelles that he is in the North, where the Raven King lives on in hearts and minds, witheringly resigns from Norrell's service, and leaves like a boss.

This leads straight to the confrontation between the increasingly raddled Strange and scared Norrell, as Jonathan appears in Norrell's library. The two have shared little screen time over the last couple of episodes, but they finally lock horns here. It all ends with bathos, as Norrell has little recourse to Jonathan's onslaught but to make it rain. 

But the dying Strange doesn't want to kill Norrell, he wants his help. Norrell is still in denial about his bargain with the Gentleman, but ruefully says that didn't want Strange to fall into his mistake. When Strange decides to attempt to summon the Raven King, he and Norrell finally truly work together. Norrell even manages a compliment about Strange's book -  "The most beautiful book of magic I have ever read". The relationship between the two men is complex, but teased out beautifully by Bertie Carvel and the more understated Eddie Marsan, whose quiet, nuanced performance is never better here.

This leads to the showstopping arrival of John Uskglass, the Raven King - who sweeps in spectacular fashion, finding the hanged Vinculus, reviving him from the dead, and rewriting the book Vinculus has tattooed on his person. He may look like the singer from a Black Metal band and say nothing whatsoever, but this guy has serious presence. It's a shame he has so little screen time, but there is a lot to cover here.

Back at Chez Segundus, things finally come to a head, as a freshly resigned Sir Walter Pole learns Stephen serves the Gentleman.

Well-meaning Segundus finally reunites Lady Pole with her finger and her sanity, pulling her out of the Gentleman's dance, and incurring the Faerie Host's fury. Lady Pole finally gets to give the Gentleman both barrels, she is quite done with being bartered by 'gentlemen'. The malevolent Faerie manages a classic quip of "Why are you firing Walnuts at me?" before we see him at his cruellest, taking a different sense away from both the Poles, Segundus, and Honeyfoot in a scene of magical body horror.

Strange and Norrell's efforts to put all of English Magic into the Raven King backfire (much to Norrell's chagrin, as his entire library goes in the process, (in a nice touch, Norrell's wig is blown off) and, as a result of a misunderstanding of naming convention, all of the power goes into Stephen - who is promptly shot dead by Lascelles. Lascelles gets his comeuppance at the hands of the furious Gentleman, who turns him to shattering glass before taking Stephen's body back to Lost Hope, where he is revived.

The magicians pursue them to Lost Hope, where Stephen, the 'nameless slave' finally rebels against his bonds of slavery and kills the Gentleman in a huge, powerful set piece, that destroys the Faerie King's domain, freeing Arabella, and flinging her through a mirror into the care of the Greysteels in Venice.

Norrell and Strange have been both master and pupil and bitter enemies up to now. It's a joy to see their excitable chemistry at work as they finally become a team of equals. It's a little too late though. Strange is still somehow trapped in the 'Black Tower', and Norrell, a man not known for his valour or moral character, is trapped with him. They enter a sort of limbo together as friends, as the Raven King restores order, unseen, observed by Childermass and Vinculus.

An elegaic scene follows in Venice between Arabella, and Strange's reflection in a well. Jonathan, looking sane and healthy, speaks to Arabella from whatever realm he is in, reaffirming his love for her - but telling her not to wait for him and become a widow. It's emotional stuff, delivered well by Carvel and Charlotte Riley. Strange's love for his wife has powered the series, and his appearance to say goodbye is touching.

The last word is left to Childermass, in a scene echoing the first scene of episode one, revisiting the same gathering of would-be magicians to symbolically hand over the torch, bringing in Vinculus as the set text to study.

This series has been one of the BBC's best efforts in some years. It never captured the public's imagination to any great degree ratings-wise, but as a prestigious production it may prove a watershed, the BBC doesn't traditionally go to town on anything that won't get a lot of commercial return back. At seven episodes and with no follow-up book to base a potential second series on, it stands alone - wonderfully adapted by Peter Harness and Toby Haynes. The cast is great, Carvel and Marsan are excellent leading men, but the show is often stolen by Enzo Cilenti's brooding, charismatic Childermass, and Marc Warren's malevolent Gentleman. It looks fantastic, and I'm running out of superlatives. I'll just sign off with this - it's been magic.




Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Episode Six - The Black TowerBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 23 June 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 2) (Credit: BBC) Written by Peter Harness Directed by Toby Haynes First Transmitted 21st June 2015, BBC One
The Penultimate episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell finds pieces aligning for the endgame. 

In the background, we finally learn the true nature of Vinculus, and Stephen shows signs of beginning to wriggle free from the Gentleman’s thrall, as Vinculus reveals that his skin also has significance, and the two men share a moment. It doesn’t end well for Vinculus, naturally, but as he was as much book as man, can you really kill an idea?

In the foreground, Strange and Norrell are still at odds, even with Strange currently on the run. Norrell is appreciative of the quality of Strange’s book, but is making every copy of it disappear, and sending the disgraced Drawlight to spy on Strange, under threat of magical menaces.

Norrell’s involvement in this episode is mostly limited to hanging around in the background, plotting against Strange. And where is Strange?

He’s in Venice, trying to drive himself mad enough to summon a Faerie, in the mistaken belief that he can revive Arabella - who he still believes dead. Increasingly unkempt and raddled, he falls in with the Greysteels, suspicious Father James (Clive Mantle), and starry-eyed daughter Flora (Lucinda Dryzek). The latter is a bit too taken with Strange for her Father’s liking, even if he is tunnel-visioned on reviving Arabella.

Strange eventually turns a crazy cat lady into a cat herself in return for the hallucinogenic mouse that allows him to finally tip over the edge enough to see a Faerie. He really picks his Faerie as well, summoning the Gentleman, who’s somewhat aghast that Strange can finally see him. The tension between the two in this episode is electric, with an unwitting Strange first asking the Gentleman for the bargain of the return of his wife, before eventually coming to the realisation that the Gentleman - and by extension, Norrell is responsible for his loss, as Strange finds his way into the enchanted ballroom of Lost Hope, and finds the enchanted Arabella. The Gentleman is caught on the back foot for the first time by Strange’s power, and his fury.

A furious magic battle ensues between the two, with Strange only just losing, as the Gentleman imprisons him in a ‘black tower’ of darkness. The increasingly pathetic Drawlight is drawn in, and sent back out with tale between legs by Strange with a promise to Norrell. He is coming.

Toby Haynes outdoes himself visually again, with the scenes in Venice and the darkness of the sequences in the Black Tower and Lost Hope, as well as Vinculus's demise all standing out. The episode ends with hordes of ravens smashing through Norrell’s mirror, the latest in a long line of spectacular images. The scripts are superb. The central performances, from the understated Eddie Marsan, to the increasingly maniacal Bertie Carvel, and the quiet malevolence of Marc Warren's Gentleman are quite inspired. Within a week this series will be no more. We may not see its like from the BBC again.




Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Episode Five - ArabellaBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 17 June 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Credit: BBC)Directed by Toby Haynes First Transmitted 14th June 2015, BBC One
Things continue to go from bad to worse for our Magicians in episode five of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, as the Gentleman’s scheming continues.
 
Opening with a bravura bit of direction by Toby Haynes, we’re plunged straight into the battle of Waterloo. Haynes’ camera swoops in from high above and dive-bombs right to the thick of the action, where Jonathan Strange is back on the front-line – doing spectacular things, surrounded by explosions, mud, and weather of his own making. Wow, frankly.
 
We see this in flashback, cutting back to Blighty, where Strange is recovering from his time at war, and winding down with Arabella. Finally it seems, they’re free to move on together, but their domestic idyll proves short-lived. Arabella is summoned from their bed at night, where she accompanies Stephen in a Faerie carriage, under the impression she is to visit a distressed Lady Pole. 
 
Needless to say, it’s a trap, and part of the terrible bargain the Gentleman is trapping an unwitting Strange into, as she finds herself in the eerie ballroom from Lady Pole’s visions. Meanwhile, her facsimile, all bark and gleaming sap, is found in a state of confusion and delivered back to Strange – who accepts her as his wife, therefore sealing the real Arabella’s fate. 
 
The poor replica doesn’t survive long, her unnatural life soon expires, leading to Jonathan’s failed attempts to revive her from the grave. The Gentleman and Stephen observe unseen, with the former trying to persuade his flunky to flick Strange’s head – like a mean kid pulling the wings off a fly. By the end of the episode, a grief-stricken Strange has ended up behind bars for attacking Norrell, and escaped through the Kings Roads to destinations unknown. Bertie Carvel’s performance in this episode is nothing short of brilliant,  conveying variously fear, trauma, exhaustion, grief, and fury towards Norrell – who refuses to help him.
 
Speaking of Norrell, he’s having another fallow week, not much to report apart from his continued stick-up-posterior. Childermass has much more to do, brooding and trying to pick a side to choose – basically he’s prepared to nail his allegiance to whoever loses the passive-aggressive battle between Strange and Norrell. What a guy.
 
Meanwhile, Lascelles continues to be Norrell's vicious acolyte, whilst Drawlight is still, as we see, behind bars. Vinculus pops up again to sow intrigue, and Mr Honeyfoot - probably the slightest character so far, finds sense in the 'ramblings' of Lady Pole, and is decoding the meaning.
 
As the series begins to draw to a close, all these disparate threads are drawing together. However, this is Jonathan's episode, and rightly, his cliffhanger. We've seen what he is capable of in battle, what might such a magician do in anger?




Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Episode Four - All the Mirrors of the WorldBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 June 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 4) (Credit: BBC) Written by Peter Harness Directed by Toby Haynes First Transmitted 7th June 2015, BBC One


Picking up immediately from last week's cliffhanger of Lady Pole's attempt on Norrell's life, this week's episode deals with the growing rift between Messrs Strange and Norrell - and the consequences of treating madness with magic.

Norrell is growing more and more paranoid by the day, his reputation is all to him, and he becomes increasingly at odds with Strange. Strange has become increasingly interested in the magic of the Raven King, and his discovery of the 'Kings Roads' - the surreal network of paths behind mirrors, whilst attempting to treat the madness of King George. Norrell is busy being immortalised in print by Mr Lascelles and establishing himself as the great reformer of English Magic. At the same time, Strange finds himself the subject of a hoax-cum-smear campaign orchestrated by Drawlight, who's been scamming money by post from people attempting to solicit him for freelance work. Drawlight is found via 

In fact, rifts are opening up everywhere. Drawlight ends up on the wrong side of everybody, even Lascelles, who threatens to kill him. Strange has become much more sure of himself, and he and Arabella fight about where his career is taking him. He ends up writing a damning review of Lascelles' book about Norrell, and severe ties with his former mentor by the end of the episode, and plans to move home to Shropshire and quit practical magic. Norrell makes a fairly insincere sounding attempt at reaching out to the younger magician, but the two part ways. Strange is more sanguine about the end of their association, but Norrell, with Lascelles hissing in his ear, now treats Strange as his enemy.

Visually and mood-wise the series continues to shine, with the stunning CGI of the Kings Roads a particular highlight. This is also the creepiest episode so far, filled with some startling imagery . The whole sequence surrounding Strange’s attempts to cure King George is memorably filled with dread,  the discordant notes struck repeatedly by the King at his harpsichord, his eerie appearance in the middle of the road before Stephen, who is almost compelled to run him through with a sword - and the fact that the King can clearly see things in his madness that others can’t.

Most chilling of all is the Gentleman wringing tears from a handkerchief and creating a facsimile of Arabella Strange from an old log – blinking, and covered in dew. On a quieter note, the scene of Childermass’s near-death experience is brief, but a stand-out. Did anyone else spot the Raven? Or, the Raven King’s more-than-passing resemblance to Childermass in that portrait later on? Coincidence? Possibly not. Time will tell.

Speaking of Childermass, he comes in for a rough ride of it this week, recovering from taking the bullet meant for Norrell, but with no thanks from his ungrateful master - who complains that he is recovering from a near-fatal wound when he could be serving Norrell. What is becoming apparent is that Childermass is very much his own man, and is starting to ask questions. He visits Segundus and Honeyfoot (now in the sanatorium business) looking for answers – still in the dark as to what exactly Norrell did to deserve the bullet he took for him, but they refuse to let him see Lady Pole, now in their care. There's surely a show-down in the offing when Childermass gets his answers.

The only slightly unsatisfactory thing about this episode is the slightly fudged bit of exposition at the end announcing that Jonathan Strange must go back to war. A bit of shorthand is necessary in TV storytelling every now and again, but it’s basically a scene of a man running in and saying “Napoleon is BACK!”, as if someone has noticed that there’s five minutes left to go until the next episode. It’s a minor quibble, it just feels slightly at odds with the leisurely pace of the rest of the series.

At any rate, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell continues to impress. The three remaining episodes are clearly building to something big, and it's almost a shame that it's ending so quickly. Sunday nights haven't been this much fun in a long time.




Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode Three - The Education of a MagicianBookmark and Share

Thursday, 4 June 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 3) (Credit: BBC)Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode Three Written by Peter Harness Directed by Toby Haynes First broadcast 31st May 2015, BBC One
The BBC's lavish adaptation of Susanna Clarke's epic saga of magic and war continues with Jonathan Strange on the front line in Portugal, whilst in London the resurrected Lady Pole continues to unravel.

Unravel is the operative word here, she's taken to embroidering her nightmarish visions of the Gentleman's world, whilst Arabella tries to understand just what is happening, only to have her help and advice knocked back by the ailing Lady. Stephen, still in the Gentleman's thrall, is beginning to see the downside of the eyebrowed-one's patronage - this episode has the creepiest and most disturbing imagery yet, including the horror vision of Stephen's birth in slavery. Everyone the Gentleman touches, it seems, is not far from madness. 

The episode focuses on Strange's travails on the front line, initially mistrusted and dismissed by Lord Wellington (Ronan Vibert) and troops, eventually winning their trust and quite literally building a road - but at a cost - his valet takes a shell meant for Jonathan and he is forced to use the magic of the Raven King to revive dead troops for interrogation. By the end, Wellington's men are all raising their hats to him, but it's a harder, more pragmatic Jonathan that heads home to England.

These sequences are the most beautifully shot and cinematic of the series so far, almost recalling scenes from Wild West game Red Dead Redemption. Even the zombies come off well. Take a bow, Toby Haynes.

Norrell takes a back seat for much of this episode, but makes it count when he is on-screen. He's on-hand whenever anything generally untoward is happening - going through Arabella's letters to Strange, recommending that Lady Pole has no visitors to cover his back after filling her in on the lifetime of torment she is in for, sending Childermass to put the frighteners on Mr Segundus as he tries to establish his school for magicians. Mr Norrell, to be fair, does himself few favours this week. Even when Strange returns home, Norrell arrives almost immediately, but is more interested in getting his beloved books back - a fact that Strange ruefully acknowledges.

The episode ends on a cliffhanger, in a moment echoing Strange's valet's sacrifice - as Childermass throws himself in front of a bullet meant for Norrell, fired by Lady Pole. Whatever happens next week, it looks like it's all coming apart for Mr Norrell. As for Jonathan Strange, he's using the dark magic of the Raven King already, and his wife is in the sights of the Gentleman. Has he developed a taste for war?




Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Episode Two - How is Lady Pole?Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 26 May 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 2) (Credit: BBC)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode Two
Written by Peter Harness
Directed by Toby Haynes
First transmitted 24th May 2015, BBC One
Following on from last week's impressive debut, the plot thickens in episode two of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and the threads dangled in the first episode begin to entwine. This series continues to impress, with the strong leading performances of Bertie Carvel, Eddie Marsan, and Marc Warren right to the fore. Peter Harness's script and Toby Haynes' direction are both hugely compelling. This is a class act

Anyway, back to the story....

Set several months after Mr Norrell's arrival in London and the resurrection of Lady Pole by the Gentleman, Norrell - at first knocked back by the government, is enjoying himself in the corridors of power, and quite literally making waves against Napoleon's troops. The episode opens with the first of several jaw-wobbling set-pieces, as the spooked French row out towards an armada made entirely from rain - Norrell's handiwork. 

At the same time, Mr Segundus, having talent-spotted Norrell in episode one, is at it again - this time he accidentally finds Jonathan Strange, who has come on somewhat as a magician, but isn't really quite in control yet.

Strange and Norrell finally come face to face. Their dynamic is interesting. Norrell is clearly impressed with the younger, far more deferential Strange, but is also extremely worried about being outstripped by the competition. Strange is a raw talent, but capable of incredible things, like the horses that rise from the sand in a spectacular beach sequence. Norrell is keen to teach him, but is protective over his territory, and his precious library of books. When Strange is selected to go to war, Norrell's greatest discomfort is at Strange ransacking his library to take to the 'dirty' front line.

It seems that as soon as they meet, various outside forces are trying to pull them apart. Mr Drawlight is unimpressed by the newcomer, and sows seeds of dischord with his co-conspirator, Lascelles by suggesting that the magical library contents of the late Duke of Roxburgh could be bid for by Strange at auction. Meanwhile, Arabella Strange soon has reason to distrust Norrell after speaking with Lady Pole, whose disintegration is a large part of the episode. 

Plagued by strange nightmares and feelings of dread, the recently resurrected Lady Pole is the subject of the machinations of the Gentleman, who makes his presence further felt in this episode. He also begins to pull the strings of servant Stephen Black, who is shown a vision of the Gentleman's spooky ball and the plans he has for Lady Pole. He also has an eye for the ladies, setting his sights on Arabella.

These plot elements build up to the climactic auction, where Arabella bids against Norrell for the Duke's library, and the Gentleman is sat next to her, giving Norrell a knowing smile. A storm, in every sense, is coming.







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