Hot on the heels of the final episode being broadcast on network television, here comes the DVD & Blu-ray release of the BBC’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s mammoth historical fantasy novel.
It’s the year 1806 and we’re in an England of an alternate timeline where magic is acknowledged to have existed but is now no longer used. A group of Yorkshire theoretical magicians (which sounds like a cue for a Monty Python sketch) learn to their surprise that a practising magician called Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) exists, with a library full of books and a set of magic skills ready to prove his abilities to them. Norrell travels to London to re-establish magic as a practical art and himself as its authority in the country.
After summoning a fairy called The Gentleman (Marc Warren) to assist in the resurrection of a cabinet minister’s deceased fiancee, Norrell fails to realise he has awoken the world of fairy to the world of men once more. Meanwhile there are prophecies in England of the return of the Raven King, while abroad Britain is having a bit of trouble fighting the Napoleonic wars and some magical input would be extremely helpful. Step forward Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), the only other individual in the country capable of matching (and possibly excelling) Mr Norrell’s own skills, and it's not long before a rivalry develops between the two.
A hugely ambitious undertaking for anyone to adapt (New Line Cinema’s own version is still in development hell) it’s a delight to report that our very own BBC have done a fantastic job in bringing Susanna Clarke’s 1000-plus page gothic literary pastiche to the screen. The BBC has a long, if intermittent, history of adapting classic fantasy, including LORD OF THE RINGS for radio and John Masefield’s BOX OF DELIGHTS for children's television in the 1980s. In the past, however, such productions were often hampered by budgetary restraints (the title creatures of 1981’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS adaptation came in for some ridiculing at the time).
JONATHAN STRANGE, however looks nothing less than sumptuous. Every now and then the CGI is a little obvious, but no more so than in other similarly gothic-themed fare such as PENNY DREADFUL. As one would expect from a BBC production, the acting is excellent across the board, with splendid turns from Bertie Carvel and the always-reliable Eddie Marsan, as well as a host of character actors, some of whom will be familiar to fans of British comedy of the 1970s onwards, including Brian Pettifer (GET SOME IN!), Paul DENNIS PENNIS Kaye, Vincent Franklin (THE OFFICE) and John Sessions (WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY).
Where JONATHAN STRANGE really scores points, however, is in its general mise-en-scene, which cannot help but evoke to those of us of a certain upbringing the glorious period British horror films of the early 1970s. One episode will have Amicus fans playing spot the FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE references, the two magicians working together at the climax is evocative of Peter Newbrook’s THE ASPHYX, and any number of gloomy carriage rides and grim forbidding locations are reminiscent of the very best of Tigon and Hammer. Vincent Franklin as Drawlight even seems to be channelling Aubrey Morris.
Blu-ray was made to showcase gothic splendour such as this, and RLJ’s transfer looks as excellent as one might expect. The two disc set also includes over twenty minutes of behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes, a few bloopers and some picture galleries. Vast, complex, and an utter delight to watch for the entirety of its seven hour-long episodes, the BBC’s JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL may well be the television drama event of the year, and if you haven’t already read the book you’ll want to by the time you’ve finished watching this.
RLJ Entertainment are releasing the BBC version of Susanna Clarke's JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL on Region B Blu-ray and Region 2 DVD on 29th June 2015