The gothic hues of Georgian England, photographed in all blue and green, fog and twisted old trees, beckon you with a whispery question: “Why is there no more magic done in England?” The question carries an air of both fiction and reality. You remember the stories of your childhood and the English novels that talked of secret doors that led to other worlds – but this world, as familiar as it feels to you, is new. Here, magic is just knowledge for scholars to horde – maybe a few street performers still make it seem mysterious and enticing, but for the most part, spells and tales of hidden realms are locked away in the private libraries of the wealthy educated class.
But wait. Here are some heroes: some characters to assure you that the world you stumbled into is not so sterile as it appears, for there will be magic done again in England, and adventure, and danger.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a particularly beautiful miniseries, not just because of the attention to cinematography and production design, but also (and predominantly) the honesty with which the characters are portrayed. Both of our title characters have good intentions. Both of them are very often wrong – in their actions or judgments. But they have humanity, the nature of which is at the core of this tale of magic.
The story contains a legend within itself, and that is what drives the plot: it was prophesized long ago that two magicians shall bring magic back to England, but only tragedy awaits them. Through their books, the war against Napoleon, local politics, and a contract with a magical being, they do indeed restore magic to their country – but was this truly the right choice to make? What have they unleashed upon their their country by unlocking the doors that had been shut for so long?
Many reviews and summaries of this series have designated the two main characters as “rivals,” but I feel this is incorrect. Even in the series itself, the word “enemy” is used, but the absolute, dichotomous tone of the word feels wrong to describe their actual relationship. It is instead the complicated clash of ideals between teacher and student, who are more alike in skill and ideals than they would care to admit. They differ in their philosophy of action: whether to cautiously adhere to tradition, or to abandon it in favor of instinct and feeling. The viewer (especially considering the way the series portrays the two magicians) will likely side with the latter in the form of Strange, but the characters (due in no small part to the unfailing efforts of the actors, in the form of Eddie Marsan as Norrell and Bertie Carvel as Strange) offer something more complicated than a choice between good and bad. They are both right, and both wrong, and the two of them very much admire and hope for the approval of the other. Of course, each is too strong-willed to concede to what they consider the other’s “incorrect” way of thinking. But in the end, their relationship is one of respect and admiration.
The series itself, despite the evil, betrayal, and tragedy it portrays, truly believes in the inherent goodness of humankind. It represents the practice of magic as something as broken and faulty as anything a person would try to learn in everyday life. The world Jonathan Strange inhabits feels so much like an alternate past of our own. Won’t you cross through the mirror and explore this world, too? It’s a beautiful place, and dangerous too, but the exhilaration of magic is incomparable to any other journey you may take. Come to London, early 19th century, still breathing the last of its magic. See if you might watch it come back to life.