*SPOILERS FOR ‘HIS DARK MATERIALS’ EPISODE FIVE BELOW*
The grandness of His Dark Materials is made clear from the first notes of its epic theme tune. Twinkling piano arpeggios give way to short, sharp cello strokes before sweeping violins burst in with the main motif. It’s all a bit Game Of Thrones, but then a lot of the BBC and HBO’s new fantasy series evokes memories of TV’s most epic show. This week’s instalment arguably adds to that sense of scale, with magic, murder and heartbreaking loss all folded into its complex narrative.
Adapted from Philip Pullman’s bestselling books, His Dark Materials has consistently tweaked the plot thus far. The events of episode five (‘The Lost Boy’) are perhaps the most different we’ve encountered to this point. Lyra (Dafne Keen) continues to journey north with the Gyptians, aeronaut Lee Scoreseby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and armoured bear Iorek Byrnison. However, when her alethiometer (symbol reader which tells its bearer the truth) warns her of an abandoned settlement where she might find answers, Lyra convinces Lord Faa (Lucian Msamati), King of the Gyptians, to allow Iorek to accompany her for a brief visit. There, she discovers something terrible involving missing Gyptian child Billy Costa, whose on-screen character has been merged with that of another Oxford boy from the books, Tony Makarios.
- Read more: His Dark Materials episode 4 review: unexplained plot and patchy CGI make for the weakest episode so far
Meanwhile, Farder Coram (James Cosmo) is reunited with witch queen and former lover Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas), whose ethereal, youthful visage contrasts greatly with the very-much-human Coram. This is the first time the elderly Gyptian’s backstory has been explored – and it’s discovered that he lost a child with Pekkala many years previously.
Apart from the character-swapping between Billy and Tony, this is all straightforwardly adapted from Pullman’s source material. However, that’s where the similarities stop this episode, as we get our first proper look at a key character from another world.
Will Parry, who was introduced via a photograph in episode two, is His Dark Materials‘ second most important protagonist – trumped only by Lyra. Played by Amir Wilson here, Will didn’t make his debut until book two of Pullman’s trilogy, The Subtle Knife. Of course, the timeline of those books does overlap, so it actually makes total sense to weave the two narratives together, but it may irk hardcore fans nonetheless.
— His Dark Materials (@darkmaterials) June 6, 2019
Plot-wise, not much is meddled with: Will still looks after his anxious mother who is convinced unseen strangers are out to get her; while absent father John Parry is investigated by mysterious men who watch the house. Among those men is Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) who crosses between his and Will’s world using a shadowy doorway which he calls a “window”. This new storyline is actually one of the few strands that is improved by its televised treatment. In the novels, Will’s introduction seemed slow-paced and the suburban happenings felt more akin to Midsomer Murders than Pullman’s complex literary work. Here, it’s given a modern spin with hi-tech surveillance equipment and tight-knit dialogue which raises the tension levels to something like a gritty spy thriller. In fact, the string-laden score and slow drip of clues evoke memories of classic BBC drama Spooks, or more recently The Night Manager.
As Will, Wilson is brilliantly cast, but it’s his mother, Elaine, who ends up stealing the limelight. Played by Nina Sosanya (W1A, Last Tango In Halifax), hers is a distressingly fidgety performance, characterised by sudden movements and manic, wide eyes. Terrified of even her own shadow, Elaine has to be comforted by her son or resort to counting the bricks in a wall to calm down. Hopefully, this is a breakout role for Sosanya, whose career thus far has been admirably spent in terrestrial dramas, but she really deserves a stint on the global stage.
Elsewhere, the acting is mostly exemplary, but there still remains the odd moment of wooden dialogue which tends to come when working with children. Dafne Keen is undoubtedly brilliant as Lyra, but even her extensive experience in Hollywood blockbusters like Logan can’t iron out a couple of hammy clangers. For the most part though, Keen nails it, with special mention going to her blossoming on-screen relationship with Lin-Manuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns, Hamilton) and a remarkable scene spent acting to a fabric-covered puppet (Iorek Byrnison is finished off digitally in post-production).
Visually, episode five is the best yet. Now that the story has reached the fictional North, His Dark Materials can make proper use of the breathtaking Brecon Beacons as its backdrop. Preferring to eschew CGI (hence the puppets) in favour of real-life photography, the producers have done a bang-up job of bringing this magical world to life. Known for their vivid imagination and grand literary vision, Pullman’s best-loved tales deserve a big budget to produce the goods. So far, that cash has been put to good use.
‘His Dark Materials’ airs on BBC One every Sunday at 8pm