A Grimm’s fairy tale with themes as big as its budget, HBO’s His Dark Materials is a thoughtful and adventurous adaptation of Philip Pullman’s challenging book series.
After being dropped at Jordan College in Oxford as a baby, 12-year-old orphan Lyra (Logan’s Dafne Keen, an extraordinary talent at just 14 years old) spends her days scampering through the hallowed stone hallways with her pal Roger (the cherubic Lewin Lloyd) and daydreaming through her studies, much to the consternation of Jordan’s chief Librarian (Ian Gelder). HDM takes place in a universe like ours, with key differences: Society is ruled by the Magesterium, a foreboding and strict religious body, and humans are forever accompanied by an animal manifestation of their soul, called a daemon.
Lyra and her daemon, Pan (voiced by Kit Connor), dream of traveling to the North, a frozen landscape of giant armored bears and possible portals to other worlds, with her uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy, suitably dashing and gruff). “The North is no place for children,” bellows Lyra’s uncle — but Oxford isn’t much safer. Kids continue to go missing, including Billy (the equally cherubic Tyler Howitt), a little boy from the nomadic Gyptian community, and some say the children are being stolen by a sinister group called the Gobblers. Soon after, the beautiful and sophisticated academic Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) swoops into Oxford and immediately takes an interest in Lyra. When Roger disappears from Jordan College one night, Mrs. Coulter persuades Lyra to come with her to London to find him. Before she leaves, Jordan’s master, Dr. Carne (Clarke Peters), gives her an alethiometer, a small clock-like device that “tells you the truth” (a.k.a. the Golden Compass of Pullman’s books, and one ill-fated movie).
HDM quickly and clearly establishes Pullman’s rich, complicated world (if you haven’t read the books, do yourself a favor and skim Wikipedia before watching) and sets Lyra on her hero’s journey. It’s a quest that involves saving the world, of course, but Lyra’s real task involves an even more foreboding prospect: growing up. “How am I supposed to trust you when no one tells me the truth?” Lyra screams at Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), a Gyptian whose own child has been snatched. “The truth is complicated,” Ma replies. “Some things you’re better off not knowing.”
Wilson is riveting as the mysterious Mrs. Coulter; her sharp smile and expressive face move with liquid smoothness between maternal caring and menace. Though she’s yearning for an adventure and a mother figure, Lyra senses that something might be off with her new guardian. Keen easily conveys her cocksure spirit and fragile innocence; she is a rare child actor who is fully believable as a child. Only Lin-Manuel Miranda, as “aeronaut for hire” Lee Scoresby, hits a false note. The actor wears his fedora at a determinedly rakish tilt, but his swagger (and his intermittent Southern drawl) are more playacting than performance.
Shot in and around Wales, His Dark Materials looks gorgeous and expensive. The daemons — butterflies, snakes, crows, lizards, Mrs. Coulter’s mean-looking monkey — have an understandable CGI sheen, but their uncanny-valley beauty blends well with the show’s stylized universe. A caveat: This review is based on the first four episodes only (out of eight), so it’s impossible to say whether HDM will fulfill its promise. (Either way, the show has a two-season order.) For now, though, HBO’s new fantasy saga feels like a page-turner. B+
His Dark Materials premieres November 4 at 9 p.m. on HBO