First look UK TV review: His Dark Materials
Ivan Radford | On 27, Oct 2019Reading time: 5 mins
This is a spoiler-free review based on the opening two episodes of His Dark Materials.
“Time may change me, but I can’t trace time,” wrote Davie Bowie in 1971. Almost 50 years on and the changes that happen to us as we grow up are as painful, joyful, eye-opening and universal as they were then. Pretty soon now, everyone’s gonna get older, and there’s not a jot we can do about it. It’s a hard truth to tell a child, but that’s where His Dark Materials stands apart from so many fantastical works of fiction: Philip Pullman’s remarkable trilogy of novels isn’t just about kids unearthing a world of surprises, but also the very question of coming of age, from innocence and puberty to self-awareness. It’s Garden of Eden-level stuff, made all the more striking by its fiercely atheist philosophy. CS Lewis, it ain’t. In short, it’s not the kind of thing that you casually bring to the screen.
Chris Weitz found that to his peril in 2007, when the feature film The Golden Compass hit cinemas to decidedly underwhelmed reaction. The underrated, but undoubtedly misjudged, blockbuster trimmed the anti-religious undercurrent, leaving fans unsatisfied and newcomers nonplussed. Rest assured, though, that the BBC and HBO have made no such mistake in their lavish, eight-part adaptation of the first book, Northern Lights. Scripted by Jack Thorne, it clings close to Pullman’s original text, both in word and spirit, resulting in a complex, challenging but immensely satisfying watch.
We begin in Oxford, but not as we know it, where young orphan Lyra (Dafne Keen) chooses to run away from books and instead spend her days atop Jordan College’s rooftops with her best friend, Roger. But things are conspiring just on the edge of her understanding: children are going missing, snatched by mysterious figures that whispered rumours call “gobblers”; her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), is carrying out outlandish research that people are willing to kill for; and at all times, the church state, called the Magisterium, rule over the country with a stern gaze. In between them stands the charming Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), whose role in all this is yet to be revealed (unless you’ve read the books), but promises to whisk Lyra away to safety.
Dafne Keen is brilliantly cast as Lyra, bringing an adventurous fierceness that’s kept in check by an endearing innocence. Like all children, she depends upon the grown-ups around her to make sense of the world, blindly trusting their explanation of events. The journey she goes on navigates not only the treacherous waters of heresy and magic, but also the even more dangerous path of discovery and knowledge, as she longs to learn more about what’s going on for herself.
The adults are also note-perfect. An enigmatic McAvoy brings conviction and gravitas to the formidable but noble Asriel, who recruits Lyra to spy for him with a conspiratorial twinkle, albeit not enough of one to stop him feeling estranged and unknowable. The show is stolen, though, by Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter, who is imperious and charismatic to everyone she meets. She doesn’t walk through this universe; she glides, adorned in gorgeously designed costumes that pick her out in any room. Only behind closed doors does that facade fade ever so slightly, as we glimpse a pang of melancholy or worry – elements of what’s to come brought to the character from the off by Wilson’s magnetic, rounded presence.
That ability to insert future revelations into current concerns is the kind of storytelling Jack Thorne excels at. From Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to Let the Right One In and A Christmas Carol on stage to This Is England and The Fades on screen, he’s a master of condensing complex details into tiny chunks, then peppering them throughout the script without sacrificing pace or character. (The important object that is the Alethiometer, for example, enters early on but doesn’t distract from the plot.)
The only exception is an exposition dump at the outset, which is perhaps unavoidable to make clear one crucial detail of Pullman’s novels: humans in this world are always accompanied by dæmons, animal companions that are essentially manifestations of their souls. Lyra’s dæmon is Pan (voiced by Kit Connor), and mostly takes the form of an ermine, but can shape-shift until she becomes an adult, then will settle into a fixed form. (Coulter’s dæmon is a shimmering, golden monkey.)
Dæmon’s are central to the themes of maturity and identity, weaving the fantastical elements of His Dark Materials with something more grounded and human, and director Tom Hooper gets them just right. The expensive budget is put to good use rendering the believable backdrop of this other-worldly Oxford (complete with blimps and armoured bears), but His Dark Materials starts consciously small: the majority appears to have been devoted to the CGI bringing these creatures to life, and they flit through the frame seamlessly, interacting with their humans with a tangible, corporeal feel. (Some of the extras don’t have visible dæmons, perhaps because there is a limit to the budget, but the central cast are compelling enough to stop that being a concern.)
The opening episodes do a huge amount of heavy lifting in a short time, with each of these elements given just enough time to form the foundations for reaching much higher. From Lyra’s friendship with Roger to Mrs. Coulter’s all-knowing guidance, as she tries to shape Lyra into a woman who can stand up to a patriarchal institution, every detail convinces, rooted in Keen’s quicksilver curiosity.
The word “Dust” keeps blowing about, each time adding intrigue to this fascinating world. That spell only becomes more compelling as the chapters unfolds – bookended by teasing opening titles that will delight fans of the books – and Lorne Balfe’s grand soundtrack swells in scale to fit the escalating drama. The result is an epic adaptation of a daunting piece of literature that refuses to imitate any other franchise; this unique piece of fantasy TV has the ambition of Game of Thrones, the mythology of Narnia and the scope of The Lord of Rings, but with a soul that’s all its own. If it can continue to stay faithful to its source for the full eight episodes, this start of a mammoth trilogy promises to stand the test of time.
His Dark Materials premieres at 8pm on BBC One on Sunday 3rd November 2019, with episodes available weekly on BBC iPlayer after their broadcast.