When Philip Pullman published The amber binoculars in 2000 it was celebrated as a milestone in children’s literature. The 500-page tome was the first children’s novel to be longlisted for the Booker Prize; a remarkable acknowledgment of what the author had achieved with the Its dark materials trilogy that ended with this book. Now it’s coming to screens as the third and final installment in the BBC’s adaptation of the series, complete with metaphysical reflections on life and death, heaven and hell.
As the story continues, Will (Amir Wilson) searches for Lyra (Dafne Keen), unaware that her wily mother, Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), has drugged and imprisoned her. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) is on the run through the dimensions and ends up bobbing in the land of the mulefa (strange, wheeled beasts that the production designers clearly had a lot of fun portraying). Meanwhile, James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel is becoming megalomaniac in his fight to depose authority and its regent, Metatron. And finally, after the deaths of John Parry and Lee Scoresby in the last series, it’s up to the witch queen Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) and the armored bear Iorek (Joe Tandberg) to fill in the good supporting characters.
From its beginnings in Oxford to the haunted streets of Cittàgazze, history marched towards this end. Now Lyra, Will and Mary find themselves on separate journeys, moving through different worlds, sometimes crossing and then parting ways. The problem with this is that not all threads of this story are equally entertaining: the sequences with sinister President MacPhail (Will Keen, father of Dafne, maybe the first “Nepo-Daddy”), villainous father Gomez (Jamie Ward) and the Rest of the Magisterium are particularly listless. The plot moves at its most propulsive when Lyra and Will are together – even in the grim land of the dead – although neither Wilson nor Keen seem particularly comfortable wrapping their heads around the rather impenetrable material.
Praised so highly, Pullman’s work can become excessively complex. Molecular physics, theological discussions and high fantasy sometimes merge into a word salad. The constant phrases involving “the Authority” and “the Regent”, “Eve” and “Metatron” become increasingly difficult to comprehend (“Hokum, religious hokum!” in the words of Lord Asriel). Simpler and more effective is the parental dynamic of Mrs. Coulter and Lyra, or Lyra’s struggles to cope with her childhood heartbreak.
“She’s not Eve, she’s a little girl,” says Asriel. “She has very little but a nose for trouble.” But as the narrative progresses, her relationship with the First Lady of the Bible will be more important than her usual girlishness. And this nose for trouble – who once indulged in merry leaps and bounds across the rooftops of steampunk Oxford – is now engaged in the somewhat arduous task of saving the world. The result is a scope and ambition that feels a little suffocating.
So while Jack Thorne’s adaptation is flawless, well acted, and exquisitely crafted, it’s also quite ponderous and humorless. “I’m trying to decide if you’re a madman or a genius,” Commander Ogunwe (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) tells Asriel at one point. “I was more hoping that the two could coexist,” comes the warrior’s reply. Unfortunately, there is neither genius nor madness in this 35mm version. The books’ dazzling intelligence becomes a gentle explanation in the actors’ mouths, while that spark of madness – the shimmering aurora – fades as the story reaches its final notes. Ashes to Ashes dust to dust.
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/his-dark-materials-season-three-review-bbc-b2247147.html His review of Dark Materials Season 3: Well acted and exquisitely crafted, but ponderous and lacking in humor