Marc Warren plays The Gentleman in Jonathan Strange. Photo: BBC
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1864 and Jonathan Strange both suffer for being modern

Jonathan Strange is an oddly lacklustre affair, aimed, it seems to me, at a generation brought up on Harry Potter.


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

It takes a while to get your head around 1864 (Saturdays, 9pm and 10pm), the new series from the people who brought us The Killing and Borgen. For this is a Denmark that extends far beyond Copenhagen, and which belongs to the 19th century, not the 21st. Here, all your favourite Danish actors (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Pilou Asbæk, Lars Mikkelsen . . . call their names like numbers on a bingo card) are in corsets, long skirts, breeches and medals, and talk neither of police procedure nor coalition-building, but of the glory of a Greater Denmark, a land given to its people, they insist, by God. “Danmark!” they yell. “Danmark! Danmark!” It’s really quite unnerving.

Everyone who reads this column knows that Borgen bored me to sobs. Two hours in to 1864, however, and I was longing for someone to whisper something reasonable about social democracy into a mobile phone. In the years between 1851 and 1864, as this series has it, Denmark was overcome by a weird nationalist euphoria. People began to believe they could fight the Prussians for the duchy of Schleswig and win. It was folly, naturally, but the men signed up nevertheless and duly went off to be slaughtered by Bismarck’s armies.

Here, the director Ole Bornedal tells the story through a large country estate, a microcosm of Denmark. It belongs, as most of the country does, to aristocrats, whose sons are so debauched that they force themselves on cows, and whose tenants are so poor, they have no shoes. Our attention is on three such tenants in particular: the bookish Peter (Jens Sætter-Lassen) and the sexy Laust (Jakob Oftebro), who are brothers and in love with the same woman: Inge (Marie Tourell Søderberg), the daughter of the estate manager. Strong, loyal and true – aren’t the poor always so on television? – they have joined the army because they want to see the world. It has not yet occurred to them that the foreign vistas on which they’ll soon clap eyes will be veiled in blood.

I find all this soapy and heavy-handed, and to make things worse, it’s framed by a clunking and wholly unnecessary modern storyline in which, in 2014, a troubled young girl whose brother has died in Afghanistan visits the same estate, where she stumbles on Inge’s diary. (Do they really think we’re so dumb we can’t see the parallels?) My Danish is non-existent but even through subtitles it’s also apparent that no one in the main story is behaving in a terribly 19th-century manner. They’re all so . . . frisky. The only character who remotely intrigues me is Bishop Monrad (Nicolas Bro), whose job it is to stoke the nationalism of politicians and voters alike. (Monrad was a pioneer of constitutional Denmark and the president of its council from 1863-64.)

A crisis of confidence – a form of political performance anxiety – has taken the good bishop to the door of a Shakespearean actress, Mrs Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who works him up into such a frenzy behind the closed doors of her drawing room that he could be having a heart attack, or an orgasm, or both. Bro plays him beautifully, masochism and fervour oozing from his every meaty pore.

Is Monrad enough to keep me with 1864? I’m not sure he is – though there’s no doubt that I’m madly in need of something new to watch. I had moderately high hopes for the hyped adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Sundays, 9pm), starring Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as the two weirdos who restore magic (perhaps I mean magick) to England during the Napoleonic wars. However, central performances aside, it’s an oddly lacklustre affair, aimed, it seems to me, at a generation brought up on Harry Potter and still feebly in mourning for it. I mean, there are CGI talking statues, for heaven’s sake.

It’s true that at one point Marc ­Warren wandered on looking like he’d just got back from a heavy night at the Blitz, circa 1982 (he was some kind of dead magician Mr Norrell had conjured up . . . I think). But I am fairly certain this was more by accident than design, because coke-fuelled, Blitz-style anarchy is precisely what this series lacks. Sensibility-wise, it needs to be a touch more Steve Strange and a touch less J K Rowling – and if I’m showing my age by saying so, well, hang it. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Marvel's Doctor Strange is like ketchup – it's formulated to please, but you won't love it

Benedict Cumberbatch’s well-honed turn in Doctor Strange is enjoyable, but the film isn't one you'd ever fall in love with.

In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article asking why there were dozens of varieties of mustard, and yet a single brand of ketchup – Heinz – utterly dominated the market. He discovered that Heinz ketchup was a perfect synthesis of the “five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami”.

Food scientists call this amplitude: Coca-Cola has high amplitude, blending vanilla, cinnamon and brown spice in a way that makes it difficult to pick out an individual note. That also makes it easier to drink buckets of the stuff; the palate tires easily of a single, spiky flavour, as with orange juice. But ketchup? You can smother that on anything.

The studio behind The Avengers, Thor and Iron Man has invented a similar condiment. Let’s call it Marvel Sauce. Take one superhero movie, add an even mix of buff beefcakes and Shakespearean actors, then marinate in light sarcasm to offset the fact that everyone is talking seriously about giant hammers or saving the world in costumes they look like they have to be sewn into.

That the process creates homogeneity is not the snobby criticism it might at first appear. (I’ve drunk Coke in places where the water wasn’t safe, or local tastes were very different from mine, and I’ve been grateful for it.) Yet it does mean the films’ greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.

Doctor Strange is smothered in Marvel Sauce. It looks phenomenal: if you liked the city-folding from Inception, this film lets M C Escher’s grandchild have a go with the software. The actors are first-rate, from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo to Mads Mikkelsen’s baddie, Kaecilius. (Wanted: someone else who studied Latin at school to appreciate my joke about Kaecilius being “in horto sedet”.) The tone is just right, undercutting anything too portentous with snark and slapstick. At one point, Benedict Cumberbatch is giving it proper, squinty-eyed, superhero duck face in the mirror when his sentient cloak pokes him in the eye.

Admittedly, the plot is pretty thin. Our hero is Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), an arrogant surgeon at a New York hospital with a lucrative sideline in after-dinner speeches. (He has to be American: first, NHS surgeons don’t make enough money to own the watches and glass-walled midtown apartment on show here. Second, he’d be Mister Strange, and would spend half his fights explaining this to people.)

One night, he is purring off to an after-dinner speech in his Lambo when he decides to look at MRI brain scans on his Microsoft Surface while overtaking in heavy rain. This is a bad idea. He wakes up with scarred and damaged hands and is bereft until his physiotherapist tells him about another patient who recovered from breaking his back. Strange finds the guy, who tells him to travel to Nepal (a change from the Tibet of the comics, apparently made to appease Chinese film distributors) to learn some old mystic bollocks.

From there on, the story suggests that the screenwriters have more than a passing familiarity with The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Strange enters the special world, meets the mentor – a bald Tilda Swinton, who teaches him to bend time and space – and undergoes an ordeal, including his death and rebirth. He “seizes the sword”, an eye-shaped necklace that can rewind time, and uses it to battle Kaecilius’s plan to collapse Earth into the Dark Dimension. There is one surprise, which is that Strange’s core superpower is revealed to be boring enemies into submission.

Is this film enjoyable? Yes. Is it the kind of film you can fall in love with? No. I left thinking of the one Marvel film that’s mustard, not ketchup: the profane Deadpool. Its hero is also disfigured and cut off from his old life. But Deadpool’s scars ruin his face, and he is ostracised and feared. Strange gets to make swords out of energy and teleport using a magic ring, which seems a decent consolation for not being able to play Chopin. Deadpool also gets a real human woman as a love interest, rather than the one-dimensional saint of an A&E doctor of Dr Strange, played by Rachel McAdams. But then, Deadpool was an 18-rated parody, and this is a blockbuster. It’s ketchup. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage