This review contains spoilers
Magic on the small screen is one of those things that can be either really well done or just utterly dreadful. Thankfully, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell appears to be much more of the former. With its careful balancing of visual effects, character development and plot construction, this first episode paves the way for an exciting series.
Line of the week: Why is there no more magic done in England? – Jonathan Segundus
It does a really good job of establishing its two main protagonists: Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) and Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan). With the former we find a young, excitable and somewhat charming man who has spent his life being put down by others and trying to win the true admiration of his lover. Where Jonathan is a fresh-faced upstart who knows very little about the actual casting of magic, Mr Norrell is an absolute scholar on the matter and is capable of performing some rather outstanding spells, of which we fortunately get to observe a few during the course of the episode. He is quite reclusive and therefore rather dislikes any attention being drawn to his magical capabilities, which is brought to light as he reluctantly goes to London in order to offer his skills to the war effort. The stark contrast between these two characters is well established early on in the episode, and it would appear that this will indeed be an integral element of the show throughout the entire series.
Through the character of the vagabond street magician known as Vinculus, we are given a sense of what direction the plot will move in and are also presented with a rather ambiguous prophecy concerning our two protagonists. His eerie presence on screen and his devout allegiance to someone or something known as ‘the Raven King’ gives the show the Gothic tones that it desires. It is worth taking a look at the Raven King’s prophecy and to see what we already know:
“Two magicians will appear of England. The name of one shall be Fearfulness, the name of the other, Arrogance. The first shall fear me, the second shall long to behold me. The first shall bury his heart in the dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache. The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand. Both will fail. The nameless slave shall be a king in a strange land. I will return.”
The two magicians are clearly Jonathan and Norrell, and through his reaction to Vinculus it is clear that Norrell is supposed to be Fearfulness and therefore Jonathan must be Arrogance. This is as much as much as the first episode directly makes known to us, but there are a few speculations that can be made at this point. The dearest possession of the second, Jonathan, would seem to be his lover Arabella, and his enemy is revealed to us by the spell he performs towards the end of the episode, but it isn’t entirely clear who it is at that point. The “nameless slave” is yet unclear too, but we can be sure that he is neither Jonathan or Norrell, or even Vinculus since he has indeed got a name. What we are left wondering is who exactly is the Raven King?
Could the Raven King be the mysterious figure we meet when Norrell casts the spell to bring the Emma Wintertowne back to life? Either way, although he tells Norrell “you need never see me again”, it is pretty clear that this won’t be the last time we meet this sinister, Stoker-esque character. He brings forth the idea of a darker side to magic, a malicious and menacing aspect that could in fact be the reason for its discontinuation for the past 300 years.
Overall, the first episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a fantastic opening to the series. It gives us a sense of who the characters are, a suggestion of where the plot might lead, and introduces us to some eerie, sinister and antagonistic figures, giving the show its exciting Gothic overtones.