Once seen as one of those books that would be impossible to dramatise, Susanna Clarke’s great tome has been masterfully adapted for the screen by Peter Harness. I’m sure there are going to be those who complain that the casting doesn’t quite fit the picture that Clarke’s vivid writing brings to the mind’s eye, but, as ever, ignore them – and also ignore the rather patronising comment that this is “Harry Potter for grown-ups”. Harness brings us Clarke’s picture of a divided Britain at war with its greatest enemy as the background for a battle between two great men.
The first part of the book – and of this adaptation – concentrates primarily on Mr Norrell, and Eddie Marsan is terrific in the part, as is Enzo Cilenti as his servant Childermass. The scene of Norrell’s first public magic trick is brought to life in York Minster, while Marsan excels in Norrell’s discomfort in London public society. But it’s his first scene with Marc Warren that really shows the layers that he’s bringing to the character.
That’s not to put down the contribution of Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange: the contrast of the two characters is the heart of the story, and we see Strange’s wastrel side as well as his ability to turn a situation to his advantage. It would clearly be a mistake to underestimate him…
Paul Kaye’s performance as Vinculus is one of his finest. We’ve seen his dramatic talents on Game of Thrones, but this manages to make Vinculus convincing both as a threat and as a madman – the moment when Vinclus and Childermass are reading the cards for fortunes is genuinely chilling.
As you’d expect from a BBC production – particularly with the amount of co-production money – the period details are excellent, and combined with Toby Haynes’ direction, it makes for an enthralling first hour.
Verdict: A very strong start. 9/10