The history of fantasy television, particularly in the post-2000 era, has been notably rich and diverse. While high fantasy classics like “Game of Thrones” and “The Wheel of Time” have gained immense popularity, there’s an array of fantasy series that cater to various tastes, from urban enterprises aimed at younger audiences like “Shadowhunters” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” to more unique offerings like the prematurely canceled “Shadow and Bone.” Among these, the 2015 British miniseries “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” stands out for its exceptional storytelling and distinct approach to fantastical elements.
Adapted from Susanna Clarke’s more than 700-page novel, the BBC-produced series, written by Peter Harness and directed by Toby Haynes, seamlessly weaves British Regency and the Napoleonic wars with prophecies, fairies, and the resurgence of magic. It boasts magnificent costumes, lavish set designs, stellar performances, and a story that’s unparalleled in its uniqueness, making it a potential contender for being one of the most beloved fantasy tales. Despite receiving recognition from the British Film Institute in 2015, it remained relatively unnoticed outside the UK.
However, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” deserves far more recognition than it has received. The series offers a distinctive approach to its magical universe, set within our familiar reality but with a twist that redefines the historical landscape. The story unfolds with two contrasting magicians—Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange—each representing different philosophies about magic, transitioning from friends to rivals as their perspectives clash.
Set in the British Regency, an era seldom associated with fantasy storytelling, the series portrays magic akin to a scientific pursuit—a serious area of study, a creator of weapons, and a source of parlor tricks. Mr. Norrell, a recluse preferring solitude with his books, gains prominence after displaying magical feats, attracting attention and sparking widespread interest in magic across the country. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange, previously uninterested in magic, becomes Norrell’s apprentice and later an accomplished magician himself.
Unlike conventional fantasy categorizations as high or urban, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” explores an alternative historical setting, posing the intriguing question: What if magic was real within our known world? The series expertly imagines an intersecting universe where magic isn’t merely an element but shapes the core of existence. Fae entities intersect with the human realm, depicted as mischievous creatures with their own motives and control over incomprehensible magic.
The main antagonist, The Gentleman, manifests in our world through a pact with Mr. Norrell, plunging individuals into a cruel fate. This intersection between worlds is depicted in visually stunning yet unassuming manners, blending contemporary visual effects with subtle otherworldly elements. However, the series’ appeal doesn’t solely rely on its magical depiction; it also delves into human drama, exploring themes of broken friendships, love, ambition, and the human quest for knowledge.
At its core, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” presents a fascinating exploration of knowledge through its titular characters. It highlights their conflicting approaches to knowledge—whether it should be widespread or safeguarded—ultimately culminating in their failures due to their inability to accept the limits of their abilities. Despite its nuanced themes, the series intricately weaves a compelling narrative, making it one of the finest fantasy stories ever created and a unique television masterpiece.
Unfortunately, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” isn’t available for streaming in the US but can be accessed on Prime Video in Canada.