'His Dark Materials' reviews – UK and US critics split over new BBC HBO series

Ben Arnold
Contributor
His Dark Materials (Credit: BBC/HBO)

The first episode of the new dramatisation of Philip Pullman's beloved His Dark Materials aired on BBC One last night.

Starring James Mc Avoy, Ruth Wilson and Dafne Keen, it began the tale of the girl at the centre of a devastating prophesy in a world, where people are accompanied by the animal manifestations of their souls – daemons – and a ruthless religious organisation is at work in the shadows.

Read more: McAvoy on why making His Dark Materials was ‘a nightmare’

A co-production between the BBC and HBO, it's a lavish, high-budget affair judging by this first thrilling instalment, directed by Les Miserables and The King's Speech helmsman Tom Hooper.

Now the reviews are in, and while UK critics seem unanimous in praise, those on the other side of the pond – thus far – seem a little less convinced.

“Despite the rich complexities of the novel's world of daemons, power-hungry players and warring faiths, HBO's His Dark Materials feels like it could have been plucked from most any other fantasy epic out there,” reckons Variety.

(Credit: BBC/HBO)

New York magazine, which appears to have seen more than the first episode, notes both ‘beauty and disappointment’, and also has issues with the series' writing: “His Dark Materials' first episodes are a mixture of unabashedly gorgeous visuals, several strong performances, and writing that demonstrates time and again that it has no confidence in either of those things.”

Adds Collider: “His Dark Materials seems like a daemon who hasn't settled on a form quite yet, and that's oddly endearing in its own way, too. For now.”

Read more: His Dark Materials voice cast revealed

As for the Hollywood Reporter, it reckons: “What never fully worked for me in the four episodes, out of the eight-episode first season, sent to critics is the necessary feeling of narrative and thematic momentum. It's vastly better than the movie, but neither fun nor smart enough to quite succeed.”

By contrast, UK critics appear to be rather more enamoured.

In a five-star review in The Guardian, Lucy Mangan called it 'riveting'.

“Religion, mortality and talking animals combine to gift us a series that captures Pullman’s magnum opus in all its glory,” she writes. “This series covers the first book, Northern Lights, and a second one, covering The Subtle Knife, has been commissioned. There is time and space to do them justice and the first episode, in all its steampunkish glory, gave every sign that the potential is to be realised.”

(Credit: BBC/HBO)

The Times calls it 'a daemonic world that's true to the books', adding that there's 'zero chance of this version being called excructiating pap', one of the damning criticisms of the failed 2007 movie.

Adds the Daily Mail: “The soundtrack is symphonic, the imagery is panoramic, the magical effects are mesmeric. If you're going to gamble 40 million, this is the way to do it.”

Per the Financial Times: “Visually, it's Art Deco meets steampunk, with the airships and canal barges feeling a little less fresh than when this world first tumbled from Pullman's rich imagination; but his themes are ever-pertinent.

Adds the Daily Telegraph: “While His Dark Materials is not, on the basis of the first episode, an all-out extravaganza, it is a fine piece of drama, capturing the strangeness and childlike wonder of the books, but also their rigour and bite. This is intelligent populism writ large.”

The series continues on Sunday at 8pm on BBC One.