“He looks like a banker.” Indeed, as one observer puts it, Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) isn’t the figure you imagine when you hear the word magician. Yet it is he, a pinch-faced, powder-wigged 19th century gentleman scholar, who revives the practice of magic, gives the crown victory over Napoleon and becomes the chief–and only–magician in Britain. For now.
In BBC America’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (premieres June 13), England’s mild-mannered hero decides that the best way to keep magic “respectable” is to keep it to himself. But when self-taught prodigy Strange (Bertie Carvel) appears out of nowhere, Norrell takes him as an apprentice, the better to keep a potential enemy close.
Their partnership and rivalry, which unleash frightening forces, drive a drama whose tone is somewhere between Westeros and Hogwarts. Strange and Norrell are not just opposite personalities but opposing ideas of Britain. Strange’s magic is wild and Celtic, drawing on ancient myths; Norrell’s is staid and English, seeking to tame and deny that past, with dangerous hubris.
Adapted from Susanna Clarke’s spooky, heavily footnoted 2004 novel, the seven-part miniseries is more whimsical and comic. Carvel’s Strange, especially, fits the eccentric mold of Sherlock and Doctor Who. (Director Toby Haynes is a veteran of both.) But it’s a fleet, entertaining transfiguration that keeps Clarke’s big ideas while pulling a few tricks from its own sleeve.
This appears in the June 22, 2015 issue of TIME.
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