His Dark Materials is of magical Dust, parallel universes, colossal armored polar bears, witches, and daemons—manifestations of the soul in animal form.
I can remember in vivid clarity spending countless hours tucked away pouring over each of the novels in Philip Pullman’s heavily philosophical His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) as a child. The novels, with striking imagery and dark emotional intensity, explore the potential of a world that is saved by original sin. It explores morality, the attachments of souls to bodies, and the everlasting question of good and evil. A trilogy drenched in Paradise Lost references (the series title comes from a line in the poem), dense world-building, theories of the nature of consciousness, and virulent criticism of theocracy and religion, it seems almost unadaptable — think of that fateful 2007 film adaptation, of which Nicole Kidman was the only salvageable part. HBO and BBC One in co-production, however, have managed to recreate this universe in stunning veracity.
In this familiar yet vastly different universe ruled by an authoritarian religious theocracy, the Magisterium, the orphaned Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) has grown within the walls of Jordan College in Oxford, raised by its scholars. Clad in well-worn combat boots, she spends her days sneaking around the halls, scraping her knees climbing rooftops, and jumping into laundry bins with her daemon Pantalaimon and Roger (Lewin Lloyd), her most dear friend. Lyra is only twelve, but her courage and intellect far surpass her young age.
The plot action begins quickly. Lyra’s explorer uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) returns from the North with a great and heretical revelation: the mystical Dust, only found in adults, is a link to parallel worlds. A Gyptian child is kidnapped on the eve of his brother’s coming of age ceremony, and his mother, Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) begins a soon-to-be relentless search. A second, much more intimate kidnapping solidifies Lyra’s determination to endeavor beyond the sloping, stony halls of Jordan College. Not to mention her unending rivulets of curiosity about the North and her uncle’s experiments. Then there’s the arrival of the enigmatic Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who promises to be a mentor to Lyra. Plus, the gift of the alethiometer, a golden truth-telling instrument, given to Lyra by The Master (Clarke Peters).
The fascinating Marisa Coulter is as callous as she is inimitably beautiful, a woman of morals as complex as her motives are questionable. She is an incredibly intelligent, powerful woman who quite acutely understands how to use her image and sexuality to her advantage. It is easy to categorize Marisa Coulter as a villain, but her emotional depth splinters and intensifies far below her superficial presentation. Think of her reaction to Lyra propels herself into her arms: something like contorted affection flashes across her face, and we know, suddenly, how deprived she has kept herself of human contact. She has collected a layer of moral filth, she is utterly terrible, but she is still very human. That is what makes her so undeniably fascinating and complicated. Ruth Wilson throws the whole of herself into this role—it is quite frankly extraordinary.
Dafne Keen, upon first impressions, was a brilliant choice for Lyra Belacqua. Known for her astounding, heartbreaking performance as Laura Kinney or X-23 in the 2017 X-Men film Logan, the fourteen-year-old actress has already established quite a reputation for herself. She encapsulates Lyra’s spirit and tenacity with ease, possessing an acute understanding of her character that is apparent in the first episode. Her potential is thrilling, and watching her grow throughout these two seasons (a second season has already begun filming) will be exceptional.
My primary concern is the ability of the show to tackle the dark emotional, thematic explorations of the novels. This initial episode did a great job of world-building and establishing Lyra’s circumstances and relationships. I can only hope that the rest of the reason will continue to be authentic visually, emotionally, and philosophically—right now, I have great faith. A more secondary concern is the lack of daemons among non-leading or supporting characters, a flaw probably resulting from logistical problems. While I understand it would be fairly impossible to give every single appearing character a daemon, there are some scenes that feel a bit soul-less, and lacking in animal companions. However, overall, this first episode is hugely impressive and confidence-inspiring.
Lyra, with all her daring and thirst for adventure, is still a child, one vulnerable to the manipulations of the adults who surround her. Her journey is only going to become more dangerous and intricate. She is too trusting and more vulnerable than she realizes, but she is also more powerful than she could ever imagine. ‘All we can do is be scared for her,’ The Master instructs carefully about Lyra, ‘and be scared of her.’
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.