BBC miniseries adaptations are usually pretty formulaic: Period setting, powdered wigs, maybe some personal and political conflict, and historical events as a backdrop. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell takes all those elements and adds the one thing that makes everything better: magic. With the series leaving Netflix on June 11, now's the time to check it out. Here's why.
Set in England in the age of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815 in case your European history is rusty,) Jonathan Strange follows two magicians as they use ancient knowledge to serve their country, help in personal affairs, and conquer a curious figure known only as The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair.
The seven-part miniseries is based on a novel by Susanna Clarke, and the richness to its world feels very drawn to that. It's as if a Jane Austen novel had a goth phase, or Penny Dreadful went back in time another 70 years. There are also classic elements of magic lore woven into it, such as the "magic societies" that still exist, but more as an excuse to get together and drink than to dip a toe into the occult. Magic use, in the world of the show, has fallen by the wayside.
It's as if a Jane Austen novel had a goth phase.
Enter Mr. Norrell, the keeper of a huge library of magical texts, and seemingly the last magic user in all of England. Well, seemingly. Jonathan Strange, a young man from Shropshire, is a self-taught magician, and Mr. Norrell soon takes him under his wing. Together, they are catapulted into the spotlight of English society and commissioned to help the British in their fight against the French.
All the while, they must handle a resurrected woman, a deal with a fairy, a magical prophecy, and someone called the Raven King. It's quaint, it's British, and most importantly, it's gorgeous to look at. One of the most praised elements of Clarke's novel is the amount of effort put into worldbuilding. There are countless footnotes and in-depth fictionalized research, and that reflects on the screen through attention to detail. Aside from all the magic, there's never an anachronistic moment. Even the king of fantasy worldbuilding himself George R. R. Martin recommended the series.
As much as it holds up as a fantasy show, it also holds up as a period drama. While the conflicts may be tinged with the fantastical, the way they're treated is typical of what you'd see in shows of the same vein, like Poldark or even Outlander. There's rich historical significance to the story, the kind that slyly educates you on the politics at hand, while still anchoring the plot in events viewers would have a firm grasp on: for example, the magicians are brought in to cure King George III's madness with their powers (and it goes about as well as you'd think.)
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell borrows from many different genres: fantasy, period drama, magical realism, even the dynamic between the two main characters is reminiscent of a buddy cop story. Somehow, though, it keeps all the plates spinning and creates an altogether unique story of mirror universes and lush imagery.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell leaves Netflix on June 11.