his dark materials review

We do not speak of the 2007 feature film The Golden Compass. Chris Weitz’s botched adaptation of the acclaimed Philip Pullman fantasy novel came at the tail end of a string of Harry Potter knock-offs, and suffered from being reduced into a typical children’s fantasy adventure without all the religious themes and dark undertones that made Pullman’s epic inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost so great. But I’m inevitably going to draw comparisons to that nonsensical disaster of a film in this review of His Dark Materials, HBO and BBC’s lavish, enthralling, and infinitely more successful adaptation.

When The Golden Compass came out, studios were desperate to find the next Harry Potter, and a slew of generic children’s fantasies were arriving and subsequently disappearing from theaters. The Golden Compass was primed to follow in the footsteps of those children’s fantasy misfires: an adventure story that follows a young girl on a quest to rescue her friend from a group of child kidnappers. The problem was the overt anti-religious themes that loomed throughout Pullman’s story, in the form of the oppressive Magisterium (a thinly veiled analog to the Catholic Church) that severely punished any whispers of heresy. The studio quickly did away with any and all religious parallels and replaced the novel’s tragic ending with a happier, frustratingly short-ended one.

But where The Golden Compass erased the darker themes and religious underpinnings of Pullman’s story, HBO’s His Dark Materials dials up the mature elements to emphasize that this is a grown-up story now, kids. And no matter the amount of talking armored bears or corporeal human souls that take the form of talking animals, HBO is going to take His Dark Materials seriously. Written by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), His Dark Materials is very much a fantasy series made in the aftermath of Game of Thrones, with the story’s more fantastical elements given as much weight as the conspiratorial mysteries and complicated character dynamics. While the series admittedly still tiptoes around the religious elements, this is an approach that vastly benefits an adaptation of Pullman’s entire trilogy.

Set in an alternate world where humans’ souls take the form of walking, talking animals called daemons, His Dark Materials follows Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), a headstrong orphan raised in the austere halls of Oxford’s Jordan College, a simultaneously grand and cozy estate that is designed like a cross between Winterfell and Hogwarts. Not content to scaling the rooftops and wandering the eerie crypts with her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd), a cherubic servant boy who works in the kitchens, Lyra dreams of going north with her adventurer uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). But when she witnesses the Master of Jordan College (Clarke Peters) attempt to poison her uncle, Lyra’s understanding of her small world is forever changed.

Though she saves his life, Asriel refuses to allow her to accompany him on his scientific mission north, which Lyra learns is related to a substance called “Dust,” a mysterious, newly-discovered particle that immediately unnerves the scholars at Jordan College and which gains the attention of the Magisterium, which decries it to be heresy. But Lyra soon gets her chance to leave Jordan College with the arrival of the sophisticated Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a charismatic socialite who sweeps Lyra off her feet and off to London, just as Lyra’s friend Roger suddenly goes missing. It’s a disappearance that eats away at Lyra, as rumors of child-kidnapping “Gobblers” turn out to be very real. Soon, Lyra finds herself caught up in a plot involving the Gobblers, Dust, prophecies, and a nomadic canal-faring community called Gyptians whose children have been abducted in alarming numbers.

His Dark Materials takes place in a rich and expansive world — though you’d be surprised to know that based on how much of the series takes place in confined spaces and claustrophobic hallways (this reviewer received the first four episodes of eight total). I’d chalk much of that up to the show taking place in Lyra’s limited perspective, but the thing is, His Dark Materials isn’t entirely about Lyra. Though the series ostensibly revolves around her, Lyra sometimes feels like a bit player in a grander, more complicated story — one that the series delights in building up with nods and heavy foreshadowing to future events and characters. Instead, I’d point the blame on the muted visual style at director Tom Hooper, who helms the first two episodes of the series and establishes the house style for His Dark Materials. His signature directorial style — that of handheld cameras, intense close-ups, and negative space — washes out the sumptuous world that Pullman created. It all feels suffocatingly confined. Even when the series ventures north and out into open, much of the plotting takes place in dank, dark spaces or grimy alleys.

There’s a worn scrappiness to this series that extends beyond the directorial style, however. It’s probably best embodied by the design of the alethiometer, the titular “golden compass” that the Master entrusts to Lyra with a plea that she keep it secret. A rare truth-telling device, the show’s alethiometer is a far cry from the one described in the books, where it’s a weighty, expensive-looking instrument made of gold. Instead, the alethiometer of the series is a practical device that folds into a battered, weatherworn case no shinier than an old coin. The tactile, modern designs of the world are a departure from the lavish feeling of the books, but they do lend that air of prestige that His Dark Materials seems to be striving for. They also aid in grounding the visual effects of the daemons and the armored bears, the visual effects for which are good enough to blend in seamlessly with this iteration of the world.

Thankfully, the performances are big enough to negate some of the underwhelming visuals of the series. Keen, who exploded onto the scene as the murderous Laura in 2017’s Logan, gives another humdinger of a performance as Lyra. I was a little unsure about Keen’s take at first — she speaks a little too haltingly, picks her words a little too carefully at the beginning of the series. But she brings a real darkness to the character that allows Lyra’s brash, bratty nature to slowly shine through in a very deliberate way that stands apart from the typical reckless YA heroine.

But the real MVP of the series is Wilson, who is absolute dynamite as the villainous Mrs. Coulter. Playing a character which had previously only been depicted as an unreadable ice queen, Wilson gives her a fiery edge: charismatic, savage, vulnerable, and terrifying all at once. In one sequence, she gives a positively feral physical performance, imitating the actions of her devilish monkey daemon in a sequence that plays out like a horror film. Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter is the sociopathic female villain post-Gone Girl, a dead-eyed force of nature who crushes everything in her path with perfectly coiffed hair and a sweet smile.

On the other end of the spectrum is McAvoy, which the series almost positions as its hero — so naturally rugged and charismatic is the It Chapter 2 actor. But try as McAvoy might, his portrayal of the character’s ambitious ruthlessness falls a little flat, perhaps because his leading-man face can’t help but betray a noble nature. Basically, I can’t buy that he’s an asshole when his deep blue eyes are always quivering with regret at being mean to a kid. But the rest of the cast are all strong players: James Cosmo is a comforting stand-out as Farder Coram, the genial and wise Gyptian elder who takes Lyra under his wing; while Ian Peck is enjoyably smarmy as the scheming Cardinal Sturrock. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda is believable as the swashbuckling aeronaut Lee Scoresby, giving a theatrical performance that lends a little comedy to the series and shows a delightful dynamic with Keen. And there’s the captivating Ariyon Bakare as the enigmatic Lord Boreal, a powerful ally of the Magisterium who gets a much-expanded arc that plays out like an espionage thriller.

The first season of His Dark Materials only covers the events of the first novel, The Golden Compass — easily the most accessible and simply plotted of the trilogy — but the HBO series has its eyes on the rich mythology and intricate narrative twists of later books, and even the prequels. Later events are heavily foreshadowed, while shocking reveals from books 2 or 3 are divulged right off the bat. The opening of the first episode is plucked right out of Pullman’s first book in his new prequel trilogy. But while these changes may unsettle some fans that have read and reread the books meticulously (aka, me), it is a smart way of reconciling the first book’s kiddish adventure story with the rest of the trilogy’s dramatic left turn into distressingly violent and morally challenging territory. It results in a season that will be immensely rewarding to old fans of the books, and an intriguing, if potentially confusing, watch for new viewers.

His Dark Materials premieres on HBO on November 4, 2019.

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