Well, some Canadians get a chance to see it. Through some broadcaster slight-of-hand, only those east of the Manitoba-Ontario border who have access to Bell’s The Movie Network can see tonight’s double-header premiere.
While many of that network’s original series are shared productions with Corus’ Western Canadian Movie Central, this seven-part miniseries based on Susanna Clarke’s novel was originally intended for Bell’s Space channel, and Corus was not a partner. Sister networks Space or CTV may eventually see a second-window airing, or it may show up on CraveTV, but for now the show has been rendered invisible to my Western brethren.
From Vancouver I grudgingly admit it would be an uneasy fit on Space, though I can wish it were placed on Bravo instead. Fantastical, mystical, literary, dark and quirky, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is not in the mold of glossier genre shows such as Bitten or Lost Girl, and it’s not science fiction such as Orphan Black, Dark Matter or Killjoys. The writer Peter Harness and director Toby Haynes are both veterans of Doctor Who, but it’s not much like that series, either. In tone it’s not much like anything on television at the moment. It’s Harry Potter for adults, minus the bright colours and pacing.
Set in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars in England when centuries have passed since practical magic faded into the nation’s past, one magician remains: the reclusive and skillful Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan). Soon Norrell is challenged by the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel).
Only the first episode was available for screening, and it barely hints at what’s to come plot-wise, but it’s evident Marsan is a wonderful Norrell, peculiar and put-upon as he bristles at the rumours and assumptions about his powers. He is reason alone to watch. Carvel as Strange has less to do in the first episode, but in appearance and character makes a good foil.
Partially shot in Quebec, this is one of those indiscernibly Canadian co-productions. Bell announced the scheduling less than two weeks before the premiere making it seem — never mind the network switcheroo and delay compared to the UK and US — like an afterthought.
But while the first episode is slow-going — atmospheric set-up more than gripping plot and character, with the women relegated to the far background — by episode’s end you’re sure to feel there’s magic to come. And if you live east of Manitoba, you just might be able to watch what’s to come, too.