His Dark Materials review: HBO’s must-see series is a dark, beautiful adaptation

In the lead-up to the series finale of Game of Thrones, there was plenty of speculation about what the future might hold for HBO after one of the most popular shows of all time comes to an end. The network calmed subscribers’ fears with the recent, well-received Watchmen series, and now the upcoming His Dark Materials series add another stunning project to HBO’s post-Game of Thrones offerings.

Digital Trends was given an early look at the first four episodes of His Dark Materials, which comprise the first half of the show’s debut season. A second season has already been ordered for the show, which delivers a wonderfully compelling story filled with impressive visual effects and praiseworthy performances in its first four episodes.

Strong female characters

Based on Phillip Pullman’s fantasy saga of the same name, His Dark Materials is set in a world where every human has an animal companion that is a representation of their soul, called daemons. The story follows an orphaned young girl and her daemon who find themselves at the center of a dangerous conflict between science and magic when she (and her daemon, Pantalaimon) begin investigating the disappearance of one of her friends.

Their adventure takes them from the dusty halls of the Oxford college where she was raised to the farthest, frozen reaches of the world — and possibly beyond it.

HBO recruited some high-profile names both behind the camera and in front of it to ensure its adaptation avoids the problems that befell the 2007 feature The Golden Compass, which was based on the first book in Pullman’s series. Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) directs the first two episodes of the season, while Logan actress Dafne Keen portrays Lyra, the girl at the center of the story.

She’s joined in the cast by fellow X-Men franchise actor James McAvoy as the determined explorer Lord Asriel, Luther actress Ruth Wilson as the cold, calculating Magisterium agent Marisa Coulter, and Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda as aeronaut-for-hire Lee Scoresby.

Keen makes it clear early on that her critically praised performance in Logan was no fluke as she carries the series through the first half of the season admirably, and delivers a captivating performance that — much as she did with Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart in Logan — draws your attention even as she shares scenes with McAvoy and Wilson, two extremely talented actors in their own rights. She manages to find the perfect balance of precocious awareness and childhood innocence, drawing you into this fantastic world of daemons and mysteries with curiosity and courage in equal measures.

And like her character in Logan, Keen’s Lyra is a cheer-worthy hero bigger than her years.

Playing supporting roles in the first four episodes, McAvoy and Wilson accomplish a lot with the screen time they’re given, with Wilson in particular building layer upon layer into her enigmatic character as the tale evolves.

As Coulter, Wilson flits between ruthless villain and caring mentor with disturbing ease, maintaining a level of uncertainty in her performance that makes every subtle movement, quiet comment, or facial gesture seem like an all-important clue to her true motives. Some of the early episodes’ most captivating moments are the scenes Wilson shares with Keen, as both actresses are fascinating to watch.

Although the part he plays is brief in the season’s first four episodes, Miranda provides a fun — if not entirely fleshed-out — addition to the cast as intrepid balloonist Scoresby. It will be interesting to see if he can disappear into the role as well as his fellow cast members, as the early episodes don’t spend much time on his character.

Daemons done right

An ever-present element of His Dark Materials that could have been a make-or-break aspect of the series is the portrayal of the characters’ daemons. Fortunately, HBO handles this part of the story expertly, and strikes just the right balance between keeping the audience aware of their presence and not letting them distract from the world-building that occurs in the first half of the season.

The daemons are representative of their human companions’ true nature, and as such, change forms frequently during their formative, adolescent years, only to settle into a constant state upon reaching adulthood. Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor) shifts between a ferret-like creature and a bird, cat, moth, or other forms, depending on Lyra’s mood and whims.

That the character is able to serve an active, complementary role alongside Keen’s performance without distracting from it is a testament to the impressive visual effects that bring the daemons to life, and solves one of the biggest obstacles faced by any adaptation of Pullman’s novels.

Coulter’s daemon is handled just as well, with her monkey familiar pivoting between adorable innocence and cold efficiency just as suddenly as its human counterpart.

Familiar, but strange

From its geographic landmarks to certain technologies in common use, the world of His Dark Materials is as much a character in the narrative as the daemons and their human companions.

HBO and the show’s creative team do a masterful job of balancing the world’s familiarity with its other-ness (which includes a kingdom of talking polar bears, for example). Just when you begin to feel comfortable in Lyra’s world, the series offers a reminder of just how extraordinary her version of “normal” is and how wide the scope of her journey is likely to be.

It’s no easy balance to maintain, but the series manages to do just that across the first four episodes with few — if any — moments that jar you out of her world or make it feel small. Although we only see a small portion of that world in the first half of the season, there’s the suggestion of so much more, and that Lyra’s journey through it is only just beginning.

HBO clearly hasn’t lost its affinity (or knack) for world-building on a grand scale, and His Dark Materials is yet another story that sweeps its audience along in all the right ways.

HBO’s His Dark Materials premieres November 4.

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