Luxury casting has its drawbacks. In Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy about multiple worlds, it felt quite natural for Lord Asriel to be a brooding absence for much of the time, and for aeronaut Lee Scoresby to materialise mainly when the young heroine Lyra needs a lift. In this adaptation, now on series two, it simply means we don’t see enough of James McAvoy and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Conversely, sometimes there’s rather too much background pushing its way to the foreground. Perhaps in a bid to extend the series’ appeal beyond children’s TV, adaptor Jack Thorne goes large on the grown-up stuff about the Magisterium (Pullman’s metaphorical critique of Christianity). At least Ruth Wilson’s chilling Mrs Coulter is a sharp-suited villainess all the family can enjoy.
Lyra and Will are both from Oxford, but their university towns lie in alternate universes. Will’s is in what we would recognise as “our” world, while in Lyra’s, everyone possesses an animal “daemon”, there are talking bears and witches haunt the northern skies. Now Lyra and Will have cautiously joined forces in a strange, between-worlds city populated only by feral children and zombie-like adults. If they’re to escape, they have to be willing to trust each other.
Pullman’s delightfully rebellious young heroine was a major factor in the success of the books. In Dafne Keen’s characterisation, carefree and irrepressible are turned into surly and unappealing. Lyra still likes jumping on furniture with her boots on, but at least now Keen has become a shade more expressive. There’s a new touch of humour in Lyra’s unsavouriness; her daemon, Pan, has to remind her to wash. If scenes between Lyra and Will are taking on a broader emotional dimension, it’s largely thanks to Amir Wilson’s sensitive portrayal of a hurt and troubled boy.
Back at the Magisterium, where Mrs Coulter’s adding torture and murder to an already impressive CV, the priests’ screeches of “Heresy!” and “Blasphemy!” are a little too reminiscent of Monty Python to be terrifying. But the contrast of their stern and craggy faces against a minimalist set worthy of John Pawson works quite well.
The witches are thoroughly cheesy, whether powering through storm clouds like supermodels with jetpacks, or standing around as though taking part in a Covid-safe fashion show. The head witches, Ruta Skadi and Serafina Pekkala (Jade Anouka and Ruta Gedmintas) address each other in hoity-toity tones with regal formality. Rather than the embodiment of liberty and imagination, they feel like the flipside to the Magisterium, only with better dresses.
Meanwhile, in “our” Oxford, answers must be sought concerning the crucial issue of Dust, from scholars more wedded to science than religion. Dark matter? Sub-atomic particles? Something to do with the I Ching? Blasphemy!
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