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His Dark Materials (BBC/HBO) - First episode review

His Dark Materials

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

A JOINT production between the BBC and HBO, His Dark Materials is a lavish, ambitious adaptation of the critically-acclaimed novels by Philip Pullman that got off to an intriguing start on Sunday.

Densely plotted and rife with interesting characters, the first episode very much served as a scene-setter. But, crucially, it left you thirsting for more.

But then it should, given the talent on show. Directed by Tom Hooper (of The King’s Speech fame), and boasting a script from Jack Thorne, the writer of acclaimed work such as the This Is England TV series (with Shane Meadows), the series also boasts a star-studded cast that includes James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson and Clarke Peters (with more big names to follow).

There is much for them to work with. Pullman’s trilogy of books tackled everything from criticism of religion to the fallibility of man and the coming-of-age of children, while inverting John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost and touching upon physics, philosophy and theology.

And where 2007’s much maligned The Golden Compass opted to sideline the more controversial religious elements in search for box office receipts, thus far this BBC/HBO co-production appears to be tackling it head on, with much early emphasis being placed on the dangerous powers of the Magisterium.

For sure, there was a feeling that a good knowledge of Pullman’s source material would help given the myriad of ideas and terminology on show (from child abducting Gobblers to magical, city in the clouds revealing Dust and talking animals known as dæmons). But part of the intrigue of watching surely now lies in deciphering and understanding this world, and contemplating its contemporary parallels.

Certainly, by amassing such a top-drawer cast, the characters are already strong enough to be worth sticking with, whether in McAvoy’s rebellious and adventuring Lord Asriel (a free-spirit who manages to invoke something of an Indiana Jones spirit), Jones’s ‘too good to be true’ Mrs Coulter (surely a despicable villain in waiting) or – most crucially of all – in Dafne Keen’s 12-year-old central heroine Lyra Belacqua, a feisty orphan who must unwittingly navigate the manipulations and betrayals being set up for her.

His Dark Materials

As with all good fantasy, the world that Pullman has created is both magical and dangerous, toying with some of what we know of our planet (Oxford, England, or The Northern Lights), while heightening the other-worldly elements. It’s already a spectacular show to watch.

And while the inherent darkness (population control and child abduction) and complexity of its themes may be too ‘adult’ for children, there’s something refreshing about a young adult adaptation that is prepared to treat its audience as grown-ups. There’s no talking down, no pandering to the masses at this stage.

His Dark Materials is challenging in a lot of ways. But also fantastical. And in its first hour alone, there is a wealth of opportunity to be exploited in future episodes. The stage has been set… now we should be able to buckle up and enjoy this spectacular ride.