Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell

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It has taken 12 years from the publication of Clarke’s lauded first novel to make it to screen. And, fortunately, they went for an event series rather than trying to squeeze it into a single movie. What sets this apart from other fantasy is that it is rather unjaundiced about the world it creates. It isn’t as cruel as Game of Thrones, but it isn’t a sweet and light world of fairies. It is brutal and self-serving on the part of almost every character, but somehow never completely so angering that you want to turn away.

Carvel (Les Misérables) and Marsan (The World’s End) face off as the titular characters in a great, and ultimately very mature, give and take. If you haven’t read the book, the tenor and complexity of that relationship will definitely surprise. I think Carvel pulls it all off a bit better than Marsan. The latter doesn’t seem to quite add the layers that need to be there; his drive is fairly simplified making the results more of a stretch. As their go-between, Cilenti (The Theory of Everything) has one of the more complex stories in the series. His motivations also are the least well understood at the end, but only because we don’t know how he came on the scene, just that he has a parallel agenda.

Though very much focused on the men of the story (and Clarke is apparently working on the female half of this tale) Englert (Ginger & Rosa) and Riley (Edge of Tomorrow) provided a needed balance and strength. Without them, the testosterone of the Napoleonic era would overwhelm any believe-ability of the story or, at the least, made it boring. They not only drive major aspects of the plot, but add necessary layers to the world.

On the pure antagonist side of the equation is Warren (Worried About the Boy), and probably the least familiar to American audiences. He has been around for ages building a huge cv and creating wonderful characters, but generally inside the UK. This is one of his least complex deliveries in a while, but that is the story, not him. Despite the simplicity of the creature, he does it well and has a great deal of fun making it happen.

The 7-part series is engrossing and fun, and likely darker than most are used to. This isn’t a simple period-drama with magic or a fantasy with a bit of period drama thrown in. It rises above both genre to something more complex, even as it appears to fall into cliches. It speaks to modern mores and human truths while creating a fascinating alternate world full of drama, action, and surprises. Because of its scope, it should attract a wider than usual audience for the type of material it is. While the series does complete itself, it also leaves room for a continuation of the tale. I’ve no idea if that will happen, but I would certainly be there to find out what came next if they did.

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