As England struggles to cope during the Napoleonic Wars with France, two great English mages engage in a dangerous battle in “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” a seven-part miniseries adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s fantasy novel premiering Saturday (June 13), on BBC America.
The story opens in 1806, as a reclusive gentleman named Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan, “Ray Donovan”) comes to London to offer his magical services to his government. Norrell has sharpened his powers, which are otherwise long-gone from England, through years of tireless scholarship delving through occult tomes. To gain the trust of a rising politician, Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West), Norrell raises the man’s beloved late fiancee from the dead. In doing so, however, Norrell unwittingly unleashes a malevolent faerie spirit (Marc Warren) known as The Gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
Norrell is understandably irritated when, as his own fame begins to rise, so does that of another, previously unknown magician, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a wealthy dandy whose powers appear to be stronger than Norrell’s, albeit with no apparent effort on Jonathan’s part. This sets up a tense dynamic like that between Mozart and Salieri in “Amadeus,” as each man tries to prove he is the greatest magician in the world.
If Jonathan comes by his gifts through no apparent effort on his part, however, the character grows in stature as the story unfolds.
“More so than any other script that I have ever read or had a chance to be involved in, the arc of this man’s journey is absolutely huge,” Carvel tells Zap2it. “The horizon of his story keeps receding, a bit like when you’re walking through hills and you get to the top of a peak and you see another one looming beyond it. The story just continually keeps surprising one. By the end of the third episode, you probably feel as if you’ve experienced seven hours’ worth of drama.
“Jonathan grows up once when his father dies and then again when he goes to war, yet he continues to grow up again and again and again, and his arc becomes richer and richer as it goes along, like a really good wine.”
Carvel says that while this sprawling fantasy is epic in scale, he found it fairly easy to master his role simply because screenwriter Peter Harness’s adaptation of Clarke’s novel is so rich.
“My job really is about paying close attention to the words on the page and then letting my imagination rip,” he says. “When you’re dealing with material like this, that’s quite easy, because it’s fertile ground for one’s imagination, especially one like mine. I’ve always loved literature and history and been interested in imaginary realms. A lot of stars aligned for me with this role.”