Let’s Cast: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Last November, the BBC announced an adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s epic quasi-historical novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, in which two warring magicians attempt to return magic to Regency England. A ridiculously popular novel stuffed with rich detail and unique characters, the television series will be written by Peter Harness and directed by Doctor Who & Sherlock alumni Toby Haynes. So who should be cast in this ambitious adaptation? With such delicious parts on offer it will be imperative to get it right – and here are a few suggestions.
The second of the book’s two eponymous characters but the first we meet, Mr Gilbert Norrell is the man who drives the return of magic to England – but he’s also a magical miser, eager to hoard all learning to himself, and he gobbles up every magical text for his hidden library at Hurtfew Abbey. A varied and excellent character actor, John Hurt not only has the perfect physical appearance for the elderly Norrell but is skilled enough to balance his nervous disposition with his authority as England’s leader of magic. This series needs a big name to launch it, and there could be none better than John Hurt.
The physical – and dispositional – opposite to Mr Norrell, England’s other magician Jonathan Strange is young, amiable, and a tiny bit arrogant. Considered strangely (rather than conventionally) handsome, he’s tall with a long nose and slightly reddish hair, and a habit of smiling sarcastically. Benedict Cumberbatch seems to be the most popular choice for Strange (it’s not hard to see why), but with a big name like Hurt as Norrell, it makes sense to find someone who’s a little more of a mystery to play Strange. Shaun Evans – who actually played Cumberbatch’s brother in The Wreckers - is a talented actor just starting to come into his own, as well as being a great physical match for the part.
THE GENTLEMAN WITH THE THISTLEDOWN HAIR
Admittedly a more out-there choice, it’s still hard to imagine anyone could pin down this fairy king better than Tilda Swinton. The primary antagonist, The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is spoiled and barely sane, commonly flying into malicious rages and determined to destroy Strange. Tilda fits perfectly with his physical description – pale, angular, cold, and otherworldy – and has already proved herself as a mystic monarch in The Chronicles of Narnia. But do you really need a better reason than “it’s Tilda Swinton?!”
Ideally the role of Mr Norrell’s man of business should have been played by Michael Wincott circa 2001, but without time travel it falls to Richard Armitage to take on the cunning and clever Childermass. With an authentic Northern accent, sharp features, and an ability to carry off a, uh, greasier look, Armitage has previous for playing characters who provoke conflicting feelings in the audience, and would do well at unveiling the mystery of Childermass.
The intelligent and handsome butler of Sir Walter Pole, Stephen Black is a favourite of The Gentleman with Thistledown Hair, who summons him every night to grand balls and processions in his Faerie kingdom. It’s a tough choice between Ejiofor and Ashley Walters - an excellent actor with Stephen’s regal good looks – but Ejiofor could better capture the quiet authority and strength vital to the role, and calmly stand up to the viscous rages of the Gentleman.
Happily married to Jonathan, Arabella is a wonderful mix of strong-willed and patient, which is perhaps why she catches the eye of the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. Another alumni of The Wreckers, Claire Foy has proven her range with turns as both the mousy Dorrit in Little Dorrit and the vampy Persephone in Upstairs Downstairs, and could easily combine the two into a great supporting performance.
Duh! I wasn’t really going to leave out Benedict Cumberbatch! The man who relaunched Sherlock Holmes as a 21st Century icon is the perfect choice for the Raven King, an ancient Northern ruler born human but raised in Faerie. The father of English magic, he’s a shadowy figure revered by Strange and rejected by Norrell, and the role is small but pivotal enough that Cumberbatch could (hopefully) take time out from his mega-schedule to appear.