Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Saturdays, 10 p.m., BBC America.
Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a dense, difficult and often delightful alternate-history fantasy story, written in the style of the period in which it’s set, the early 19th century. It runs more than 1,000 pages, and it’s full of lengthy, detailed footnotes and digressions that flesh out the world of two rival magicians in England. Boiled down to its most basic elements, the story of sour, bookish Gilbert Norrell and reckless, charming Jonathan Strange reviving magic in England after it’s been dormant for 300 years isn’t especially complicated. But Clarke’s style made it unique, and helped it top best-seller lists and win awards.
Although the new seven-episode miniseries version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (produced by the BBC and airing in the U.S. on BBC America) features some of Clarke’s prose incorporated into the dialogue, it lacks the sophistication, wit and wordplay of her meticulous style. It’s no longer a pastiche of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen; instead it’s just another mediocre sci-fi/fantasy TV series, with some passable special effects and semi-intriguing plot twists. What sparkles on the page often falls flat onscreen, especially the role of the nameless villain Norrell conjures up when bringing a noblewoman back to life. Clarke’s version of the malicious fairy king is creepy and menacing, but as played by Marc Warren in a series of gaudy outfits and a poofy hairdo, he’s more cartoonish than scary.
Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan give decent performances as the title characters, and Alice Englert stands out in the supporting cast as the doomed resurrected young woman. Writer Peter Harness and director Toby Haynes predictably focus on the elements of the story that make for impressive set pieces, including the magicians’ efforts to aid the British army in the Napoleonic Wars, but the extensive special effects only take away from the throwback feel of the story. As a TV show, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is mildly entertaining, and genre fans who aren’t familiar with the book might find parts of it enjoyable. But for all its flash, it’s missing an essential ingredient—magic.