Near the end of the third episode of “His Dark Materials,” we watch as an innocent creature bravely steps through a portal into another world, eyes full of intrigue. Yes, that’s right: Paddington has entered the building. He’s on screen in a movie theater where the show’s two protagonists have taken refuge.
“His Dark Materials” uses this scene from “Paddington” to wink at the interdimensional adventures undertaken by the show’s two protagonists. It’s a fun gesture, but the wondrousness of the brief “Paddington” clip only serves as a reminder of the enchantment that the show should have been able to capture this season, but that has thus far eluded its grasp.
“His Dark Materials,” an HBO series based on Philip Pullman’s novel series of the same name, follows Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) and Will Parry (Amir Wilson), two young teenagers from different dimensions whose fates are intertwined by the oncoming war between mortals and the kingdom of heaven.
Will and Lyra meet for the first time this season, and their acquaintance kicks the story into high gear, opening each character’s world up to possibilities never before imagined. Will discovers that Lyra’s soul exists outside of her body in the form of a shape-shifting animal called a dæmon; Lyra is baffled by the otherworldly communication devices and vehicles she finds in Will’s 21st-century reality. Both characters are thoroughly mystified by Cittàgazze, the eerie, adult-free dimension dominated by soul-sucking Spectres.
Yet the stakes of their experiences rarely register on screen — instead, the second season is a paint-by-numbers retelling of Pullman’s original story that fails to fully recreate the majesty and horror of Will and Lyra’s adventures.
Most of the show’s scenes center around Keen and Wilson, whose dynamic is pleasant enough, if a bit forced. Keen plays Lyra exactly as she appears in the book: fearless and too clever for her own good. Vulnerability is anathema to Lyra’s attitude, which, unfortunately for Keen, prohibits her from employing her full range. Will’s frightened apprehension is a much-needed antidote to Lyra’s bravado, and Wilson adeptly telegraphs the character’s emotions.
The best of the show’s performances are found among the adults. Ruth Wilson’s Marisa Coulter is at once withering and weak; she plays the character with icy resolve, but isn’t afraid to show the cracks in her facade. Lin-Manuel Miranda is delightful as Lee Scoresby, a Texan aeronaut who forgoes his freewheeling life in the skies to protect Lyra. Miranda’s take on the character is much more emotional than the gruff personality found in the book series, but he’s convincing enough that the choice feels natural.
Miranda finds his most harmonious match in Andrew Scott, who trades his Hot Priest collar for a Hot Shaman cardigan to play John Parry (Stanislaus Grumman). Scott is a marvelous actor, and his performance — though brief — quickly outpaces those offered up by the rest of the cast.
One area where “His Dark Materials” is consistently imaginative is in its visual effects. The standout moment from the series so far comes in the fourth episode, when Will learns how to use the subtle knife to cut portals into other dimensions. It’s an aesthetically gorgeous sequence, and perhaps the most pivotal of the season — it’s executed with aplomb.
But although the scene is one of the season’s most important, it’s only a few minutes out of several hours of material, most of which are plodding. The series is faithful to a fault: It adapts nearly every detail from the source material, sacrificing even dynamic pacing in the process.
Hopefully, the remaining episodes will resemble the fourth moreso than the first three, but the show has already spent nearly half the season on lackluster exposition. It may well improve from here, but if “His Dark Materials” aims to cement itself as a worthy adaptation, it has a lot of ground to cover.
“His Dark Materials” airs Monday nights on HBO.
Matthew DuMont is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].