This His Dark Materials review contains spoilers.
This is such a weird story. Beautifully so. It’s not surprising that the first attempt to put it on screen in 2007 struggled to capture its peculiar magic, nor that it would justify all the blood, sweat and tears involved in a second go. Witches and parallel worlds and quasi-fascist baddies we’ve seen before in fantasy, but quantum computing, dark matter and an ex-nun physicist alongside them? This is a singular tale that – as fans of Pullman’s books know – is only about to get stranger.
An episode like ‘The Cave’ shows just how singular, and how well-conceived the narrative spine of His Dark Materials is. The concept of Dust has, until now, felt contained to Lyra’s fantastic world. Here we see that it’s universal, with a presence in every realm including our own. What Lyra calls Dust, we call shadow particles or “the matter in between all the known bits of the universe.” In this story, it’s conscious and there are multiple ways to communicate with it – through an alethiometer, through the I Ching, and through Dr Mary Malone’s quantum computer.
When The Subtle Knife was published in 1997, massive quantum computers like the one in The Cave didn’t exist. The real world has had to catch up with the imagination of these books, and this adaptation is managing to modernise without a sense of anything being changed. Tech updates like Will’s smartphone (cannily compared to the alethiometer in Lyra’s bragging “I’ve got something like that, but better”) add modern texture to the story without taking anything away. The addition of Will’s grandparents too – whatever purists make of it – neatly fills a narrative gap in the books.
Dust was the big story of episode two, thanks to new character Mary Malone (Simone Kirby). This show’s casting streak continues with Kirby, who feels a solid fit for the lapsed Catholic scientist. Mary’s instinctive kindness and acceptance towards Lyra and her odd story make her a rarity in a show where adults tend to have their own agendas that run roughshod over kids. Perhaps Mary’s former home in the Church taught her the importance of believing the words of children.
Given Lyra’s independence and all that she’s been through, it’s easy to forget that she’s still a child. This episode though, took care to remind us, first with the light-hearted “no capes” dress-up scene (love the Man With No Name get-up vetoed by Will) and then with her rambunctious excitement about Will’s world. Some gentle fish-out-of-water comedy came from Lyra’s wide-eyed reaction to automatic doors (what wizardry!).
It wasn’t just the doors that surprised Lyra, but also a different distribution of power from her world to ours. Her initial jolt of shock that ‘The Scholar’ was a woman, and her remark that Mary would never have been allowed to quit the Church in her world, show the character’s travels broadening her mind. She’s on the ultimate Gap Year.
Dafne Keen continues to shoulder an extraordinary weight with demanding emotional speeches like Lyra’s unadorned, honest appeal to Mary. The Botanical Gardens bench scene was another bit of joy. The girl’s a star, what more is there to say?
The episode had plenty to say about The Magisterium, and none of it good. Behind the scenes at their headquarters, we witnessed the hypocritical mourners at the Cardinal’s funeral, the vote for his replacement swung by a might-is-right act of war, MacPhail’s electioneering speech about the need for strong leadership in troubled times, and the spitting misogyny of their witch-hatred (“They use their soft, deceitful ways to seduce us! They steal our seed!” You can keep yours, love)… It all painted a picture of bigoted, insincere, messed-up repression. No punches are being pulled in that portrayal.
Pulling the strings while squeezing out a crocodile tear was the Cardinal’s murderer, Mrs Coulter, looking fabulous as ever in her funeral garb. The detail in Ruth Wilson’s performance continues to tell a captivating story about a character of supreme dysfunction (see that micro-expression as she evaluated Macphail’s speech and seemed to find the imagery, what… banal?) Taking her leave of “Hugh” and striding off in search of her “infinitely more valuable” daughter was some exit. We left her one step closer to Lyra.
Lord Boreal of course, is even closer than that, not that he’d let on to Marisa. If ever proof were needed of the Magisterium’s hypocrisy, it’s him, stepping between parallel worlds while wearing the badge of the institution attempting to deny their existence. Of course his daemon is a snake. What else would it be?
Now, thanks to the Magisterium’s extreme response to Ruta Skadi’s attack, the witches are in this war whether they want it or not. If just one witch did that much damage last time, what will nine clans be capable of? Tweezers at the ready, Mrs C.