Well acted and exquisitely drawn, but plodding and humorless

When Philip Pullman published The amber telescope in 2000 it was hailed as a landmark of children’s literature. The 500-page tome was the first children’s novel to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize; a remarkable acknowledgment of what the author had accomplished with the His dark matters trilogy, which ended with that book. Now it hits screens as the third and final installment of the BBC series adaptation, complete with metaphysical musings on life and death, heaven and hell.

As the story picks up, Will (Amir Wilson) is on the hunt for Lyra (Dafne Keen), unaware that her cunning mother, Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), has drugged and imprisoned her. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) is on the run across dimensions, eventually arriving in the land of the mulefa (strange beasts on wheels that the production designers clearly enjoyed rendering). Meanwhile, James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel is becoming utterly megalomaniac in his fight to depose the 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 queen of the witches Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) and the armored bear Iorek (Joe Tandberg) to represent the nice secondary characters.

From its origins in Oxford to the ghostly streets of Cittàgazze, history has marched towards this conclusion. Now Lyra, Will and Mary find themselves on separate journeys, crossing different worlds, sometimes crossing each other and then parting ways. The problem here is that not all threads in this story are equally entertaining: the sequences featuring the sinister President MacPhail (Will Keen, Daphne’s father, possibly the first “Daddy Nepo”), the evil Father Gomez (Jamie Ward), and the rest of the Magisterium, are particularly listless. The plot moves most propulsively when Lyra and Will are together – even in the grim Land of the Dead – even if neither Wilson nor Keen seem particularly comfortable wrapping their heads around the fairly impenetrable material.

However acclaimed, Pullman’s work can veer into excessive complexity. Molecular physics, theological discussions and high fantasy sometimes merge into a word salad. The ongoing rulings involving “the Authority” and “the Regent,” “Eve” and “Metatron” become increasingly difficult to follow (“Hokum, religious hokum!”, in Lord Asriel’s words). Simpler and more effective are the parenting dynamics of Mrs. Coulter and Lyra, or Lyra’s struggles to come to terms with her childhood pain.

“It’s not Eva, it’s a little girl,” says Asriel. “She has very little, except a nose for trouble.” But as the narrative progresses, it’s his relationship with the first lady of the Bible that will be more important than his normal childhood. And that nose for trouble – once indulged in gleeful leaps and bounds across the rooftops of steampunk Oxford – is now engaged in the rather onerous task of saving the world. The result is a scope and ambition that feel a little stifling.

So while Jack Thorne’s adaptation is true to error, well acted and exquisitely designed, it’s also quite plodding and humorless. “I’m trying to decide if you’re a madman or a genius,” Commander Ogunwe (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) tells Asriel. “I rather hoped that the two could coexist”, comes the warrior’s reply. Alas, there is neither genius nor madness in this small screen version. The dazzling wit of the books becomes blandly expository in the mouths of the actors, as that spark of madness – the shimmering aurora – fades as the story reaches its final notes. Ashes to ashes dust to dust.

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