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FIRST LOOK: HIS DARK MATERIALS

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is the first episode review of the upcoming show. The chance to view it in advance was kindly provided by HBO Nordic.

They nailed it.

That’s as succinctly as it can be put, they nailed it. HIS DARK MATERIALS, the next big series from HBO and BBC is not just the next “it” thing you should watch, it’s yet another bar raised in how to adapt books to screen. Faithful where it needs to be yet just as willing to cut corners where necessary, this latest adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s masterful trilogy does the epic bildungsroman the kind of justice it deserves. 

Not that any of the previous adaptations were strictly bad, each of them touched upon some part of the greatness of the source material. But it’s only now that it feels like every area has been done right. The casting is impeccable, and the script is as smart and (as dreaded as the word is) edgy as it should be. Pullman’s story is heavily anti-authoritarian, especially when it comes to organized religion, and the early setup here does not sidestep around the topic. In a time where Game of Thrones can essentially wipe out clergy like it’s going out of style, anything less would have felt like a slight.

The production design beyond gorgeous. The Victoriana fantasy has been captured better than ever before. Sets now feel lived in, and there’s a thrilling sense of a world gone by that the books described. A melancholy feeling of something grand lost, and we’re too blind to see it. It also must be pointed out that in a time where we’re used to dragons flying around the screen, and majestic battles between armies are a weekly occurrence on TV, the simple tricks into bringing Daemons (the physical manifestations of souls) to life is still impressive. They’re in every frame of every scene, and it’s a delight watching how uniquely each one reacts to the world and the people they are bound with.

Ruth Wilson is spellbinding as the sinister Mrs. Coulter. Picture courtesy of HBO Nordic.

The series is carried by a trio of wonderful performances, the most notable of which is Dafne Keen as Lyra. Already hugely impressive in the masterful LOGAN, Keen has only improved with time. Her powerful presence commands the screen even against veterans like James McAvoy (charming and repulsive at once) and Ruth Wilson (terrifying and hypnotic). Director Tom Hooper (who worked on the first two episodes) injects early scenes with a combination that can only be described as leisurely malice, where Lyra’s sleepy life at Jordan College comes to an end, and then expertly ramps up the tension as the wheels begin turning. Before we can draw breath, the world has opened to a multiverse of espionage and intrigue.

The first season is eight episodes in length, each about an hour long. A second season has already been ordered by HBO and BBC, which should mean that we’ll at least get a good deal of Pullman’s magnum opus adapted in the next few years.

The series begins on HBO Nordic tomorrow, November 4th. Most of the season is still under wraps, but will be updated here as it progresses in weekly reviews. Until then, here’s the launch trailer to tide you over.

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