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Sunday, 12 July 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - now available on DVD/BluRay from RLJ Entertainment

When you consider that for many people this series was a hugely anticipated adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s acclaimed novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, it may sound strange (see what I did there?....sorry, I'll get my coat) to say that I almost gave it a miss. In fact I didn't watch the first two episodes when it began on the BBC a couple of months ago.

You may be wondering (or then again, you may not care less) for the reason behind my reticence to watch the series. In all honesty I hadn't read Susanna Clarke's 2004 debut novel featuring a fantastical alternative version of England during the early 1800's. It wasn't a conscious decision not to read it either. I had heard mutterings at the time concerning some of the interest that surrounded it after its initial release, but I simply never got round to reading the book and so it remained on my 'to do' list indefinitely. As a result I wasn't part of the ever increasing band of followers that the story had gathered over the years. There was though one other possible factor in why I didn't begin watching the series when it first started. The problem for me is the concept of the period drama. Actually, let me rephrase that - I don't have a problem with the period drama as a thing in itself, but sometimes I just get the feeling that we know that we Brits do them well, so the result is that we do them .......and do them.......and once we've done them, we do some more.

Don't get me wrong, I can enjoy a deeply Gothic piece of TV or cinema with the best of them, in fact some of my all time films virtually drip with atmospheric Gothic splendour. My issue is that wherever you look here in the UK we seem to be perpetually drenched in period drama overload........and don't even get me started on Downton Bloody Abbey. You'd think (as many seem to be of the opinion across the pond) that is the only worthwhile thing we Brits are capable of producing.

Two things happened almost simultaneously to change my mind about watching the series. Firstly a friend of mine began to tell me just how much she loved this "fabulous new Gothic drama about magic m'lovely, you simply MUST watch it!" - yes, she really does talk like that. In fact it soon became evident that each time we talked this chap called Jonathan Strange found his way into our conversation, she was insistent to say the least. The problem was that I had by this point missed the first two episodes and so in my tried and tested fashion, I was already lagging behind the public consciousness. Now I know what you're thinking, I could have easily have caught up by using that there fangled Iplayer malarkey. However I thought I would simply wait until the series came out on DVD because there was no rush after all, was there?

Well as coincidence would have it the very day I had had that particular conversation with my friend I also received an email from Aim Publicity advising me of the following: "One of the BBC’s most ambitious and bold productions to date, a major new adaptation of, and following its hugely anticipated, seven week run on BBC One which began last night, it makes its DVD & Blu-ray bow on 29 June 2015 courtesy of RLJ Entertainment’s Acorn Label." They then went on to mention that review discs were available if I was interested. Well it blooming well seemed that the gods were indeed trying to get me to finally see what all the fuss was about.... Who was I to refuse?

So if like me, you were unfamiliar with the book and also missed out on the TV adaptation, let me provide you with a brief synopsis......

"The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians became the stuff of legend. 

But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr. Norrell (Marsan), whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange (Carvel). Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. 

So begins a dangerous battle between the two great men. Their obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts will cause greater trouble than they can ever imagine. With its brilliant drama, stunning period sets, and amazing supernatural events Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is truly magical."

I gorged myself on the seven episodes in one glorious Sunday just a few days ago - To put it simply, everything about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an unadulterated triumph with its multi-textured narrative and characterisation. It is quite frankly exquisite on every level.

At face value, the story is about an alternative or parallel version of 19th century England infused with fantasy and magic and the impact the employment of has on the unfolding history and conflicts that embroiled Europe at that time. However, it is far more than just a story of an alternative England where magic and sorcery reign supreme. The real theme that underpins everything that takes place is the evolving and devolving relationship between in the main the two principle characters, but also the collection of individuals whose lives they intertwine and impact with. 

The standout factor here is the stunning ensemble acting performances of all the cast, there simply isn't one weak link between them. 
Indeed special mention is naturally going to go to the endearing and inspiring performances of of three main players - Both Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel are simply wonderful as the 'only two magicians in England'. Carvel is excellent as the charismatic yet insecure Jonathan Strange and perfectly captures the character's ever complex and conflicted story-arc, while Marsden captures the innately phlegmatic and fussy Norrel with equal aplomb. However, for me the standout performance is from Marc Warren as their adversary from another domain who steals every scene he appears in.....and always with a devilish twinkle in his eye.

Staggering in it's complexity and scope and yet never failing to keep the viewer enthralled and involved the story is nicely complimented by a number of ambitious set-pieces, some of which include a level of CGI excellence often missing from British TV productions. The scene in York Cathedral near the beginning of the tale when Norrell is trying to convince a sceptical magician society that he does indeed possess skills that died out centuries ago is fabulous. The 'bringing to life' of the statues within the cathedral is skilfully put together to produce some lovely moments of chills and comedy. Those whose unfortunate place is to know me and my blog quite well will be fully aware of my hatred for spoiler-ridden prose in reviews so I will refrain from discussing any other of the magical set-pieces. Suffice to say that the Napoleonic war sequences benefit hugely from some fine and exciting special effects.

Even though period type drama's may not exactly be at the top of my personal wish list, I would be foolish to deny that one thing that the BBC often gets correct is the attention to historic and social detail. Once again, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell displays an acute attention to detail throughout each and every one of the seven episodes, with each scene within being lavishly and authentically designed to the minutest element.

However, it is the friendship and rivalry between the two main characters that forms the backbone of this wonderful series. Not only is the television adaptation lovingly written but, as previously mentioned, it is the delightfully nuanced performances from Carvel and Marsen who bring the complexities of the characters and their brooding rivalry alive. The scene where Strange and Norrell first meet and in which Norrell's cynicism and dismissal of the young upstarts magical skills is quickly replaced by joyous wonder at his 'trick' with the mirror is a joy to behold. Any production like this, where the chemistry between the main players is of the utmost importance, needs its actors to convince us of the depth and complexity of their relationship. They succeed, and then some. Mention and praise should also be given to the production's other actors, John Heffernan, Alice Englert, Samuel West, Charlotte Riley and Paul Kaye, - a genuine ensemble piece.

I can't explain how surprised I was in the level of enjoyment I experienced in watching this series and so unsuprisingly cannot recommend it highly enough. If you like an authentic historical drama laced with magic, fantasy and every human range of emotion - then Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell is for you. It's now available on DVD and Blu-Ray......I assure you that you won't be disappointed.


- The Making of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (includes key cast and crew, fascinating insight from the makers and the stars – Susanna Clarke is even on set!)
- Deleted scenes
- Two Making of shorts – showing how the special effects were added
- Bloopers
- Stills Picture Gallery
- Behind the Scenes Picture Gallery
- Subtitles

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