His Dark Materials, the new BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s bestselling fantasy trilogy (now ‘equalised’ in his recent Book of Dust novels), recaptures that childish feeling and has a lot of fun running around in it.
The world in His Dark Materials is similar and different to ours, it being a parallel reality and all. The skies make way for massive Zeppelins, armoured bears are negotiated with, and every human is magically tethered to a spiritual animal known as a ‘daemon’. In the alternate Oxford, the academic/explorer/polemicist Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) arrives by Zeppelin and secretly hands a baby to one of the priests at Jordan College; citing ‘scholastic sanctuary’ in a posh English accent.
Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) returns to Oxford from his travels, carrying a baby
Jump forward 12 years and this baby grows into the endlessly fierce and entertaining Lyra (Dafne Keen), who races her mate Roger (Lewin Lloyd) across the roofs, stairways and undercrofts of Jordan College.
She exists within the theocratic tenets of her world, led by priests who despise the world of Science. She doesn't pay much attention to her lessons on good and evil or heaven and hell, dreaming instead of places further-flung and more treacherous. These include the frozen places to the north, to which her Uncle Asriel often travels, where a mysterious, controversial substance known as ‘Dust’ exists.
Dafne Keen eagerly embraces the role of Lyra Belacqua
Lyra sparks as a furiously rebellious pre-teen. She’s not as loose with the rules as in the books, but there’s still that bursting desire for puerile chaos: exemplified as she drinks, and immediately spits out, a gulp of wine. Dafne Keen eagerly embraces the role, which is parallel worlds away from her quiet, yet furious, movie debut in Logan (still one of Marvel's best films).
She’s occasionally let down by many hammy lines of dialogue, over-explaining the world and its characters – writer Jack Thorne clearly tries to speed through the background detail. This is strange for a series that purports to erase past mistakes (ie, the disappointing movie adaptation from 2007) and re-draw the story with an appropriate length. But this could just be the expositional burden that many first episodes, especially in fantasy series, are forced to bear.
Ruth Wilson is instantly menacing as Mrs Coulter
Ruth Wilson, despite wielding similar flavours of functional dialogue, pierces with her presence as the explorer Mrs Coulter – casting an instant shade of evil. It’s rare for actors to have such an immediate sense of menace, but Wilson (her Luther reputation preceding her) crafts a sharp stare, stiffening limbs to stone. When Mrs Coulter seduces Lyra with the possibilities beyond her enclosed existence in Oxford, Lyra can’t see what lies beneath.
Hopefully, the first episode builds the world adequately enough to pave the way for more characterful dialogue and performances. However, there’s so much fantastical enjoyment baked into every scene and on a dreary Sunday evening, the night before kids and grown-ups return to their everyday lives, viewers can forget their realities and plunge into a magically alternate existence.
His Dark Materials airs on Sunday 3 November at 9pm on BBC One
|His Dark Materials, BBC One, episode 1 review
03 Nov 19 – 08 Dec 19, 8:00 PM – 9:00 PM
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