HIS DARK MATERIALS
Starring: Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writers: Philip Pullman, Jack Thorne
Directors: Jamie Childs, Otto Bathurst, Tom Hooper, Dawn Shadforth, William McGregor
Studio: Bad Wolf Productions
Philip Pullman’s wildly successful YA trilogy His Dark Materials has proven difficult to translate to the screen in the past. A complex set of novels dealing with issues of identity, philosophy, and destiny, set in a fantasy/steam-punk world where every human’s soul lives outside their body as an animal-shaped daemon, there’s a lot to cover here. Making it into a series that gives the story the room it needs to stretch and unfold is unquestionably the right choice.
His Dark Materials follows Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen, Logan, The Refugees), an orphan raised in Oxford College, and her daemon, Pantalaimon. Lyra’s life is mostly carefree as she traipses around the rooftops of the university until the Gobblers kidnap her best friend. She pairs up with the elegant and exciting Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson, Luther, Jane Eyre), who promises to help her find him. But is Mrs. Coulter who she seems, and what does she want with Lyra? And what is Dust, the mysterious substance that her uncle was almost assassinated for studying?
This adaptation is off to an excellent start with bringing Pullman’s books to life. Keen has already proven her capacity for mature roles as Laura in Logan, and she does just as good a job here. She has incredible acting skills for someone so young, and she is definitely one to watch. Lin-Manuel Miranda is charming as the rakish sky pilot Lee Scoresby. The season is bookended by James McAvoy as Lord Azrael, a wonderfully complex character that gave me a lot of mixed feelings in both the books and the show.
I also love Anne-Marie Duff (Watership Down, On Chesil Beach) as Ma Costa, the gyptian mother who protects Lyra on her journey to find the missing children. She’s a wonderful counterpart to the oversure male characters in her quiet wisdom and confidence. I feel sad that they had to part ways; she would have had a lot to teach Lyra and could have been the secure parental figure that she never had.
While a bit type-cast as the surprise villain (if you’ve seen her in Luther, you know she can play a baddie with scary ease), Wilson doesn’t disappoint as Mrs. Coulter. I love getting to see a female villain who is motivated by something other than jealousy or heartbreak. She is ambitious, smart, independent, and truly believes that her actions are for the greater good. This is one of the scariest villain motivations, if you ask me. Wilson has an uncanny ability to act like her veins flow ice, and it’s incredibly convincing and makes the moments of introspection stand out. She is definitely not a one-dimensional villain.
The CGI is top-notch, making the daemons and bears seamless. The production team accomplishes rich world-building in bringing to life Pullman’s vision of this other Oxford and other London. The landscape of the North is strikingly beautiful and provides a sense of isolation and otherworldliness described so well in the books.
The early episodes suffer from a bit of an info dump. One of Pullman’s strengths as an author is his trust in his readers to figure things out on their own without a lot of hand-holding. He drops you in the middle of the world and lets you experience the action as its happening, picking up and piecing together the lore along the way. The show, however, peppers the opening episodes with some fairly obvious exposition. The first book wrestles with the possibility of multiple worlds until almost the end. The TV show confirms them by episode two. This, of course, is to introduce Will Parry’s (Amir Wilson, The Kid Who Would Be King) storyline earlier and parallel him and Lyra at the end. Still, this over-exposition comes at the cost of losing some of the complex magic and deep-thinking of the original books.
Although a bit heavy and complex to be bingeable (the episodes benefit from giving your brain the space to percolate on everything that’s happened), I’m happy to say that I’m not disappointed by the adaptation so far. It is an excellent addition to the epic-fantasy genre, and I’m looking forward to how they continue the series in future seasons.