With last week’s Lyra’s Jordan being such a fantastic opener to His Dark Materials, it seems natural that episode two would be a slightly less engaging affair, more interested in setting up key plot-points as opposed to progressing the story too far. The Idea of North settles down and lets us get to know the characters a bit more by focusing on Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson).
Easily, the standout performances are from Keen and Wilson, with both actresses are at the top of their game, managing to showcase the complex dynamic between the two characters as it develops from mutual appreciation to eventual conflict in the final act. There’s something very believable about Keen’s performance as Lyra that makes her so watchable, being carefree and impulsive one moment and scared for her life the next. She juggles complicated scenes with her Daemon, Pantalaimon, and consistently manages to make the scenes work, despite obviously not having a real-life Daemon to interact with. Credit also has to be given to Kit Connor as the voice of Pantalaimon, giving his various animal personas a great sense of warmth and a strong relationship with Lyra. Unlike in the first episode, director Tom Hooper focuses the camera much more on Pantalaimon and his facial expressions, in turn giving us an insight into how Lyra is feeling. His sceptical glances at the golden monkey are really well-animated, even if the CGI can look a little “off” at points.
Next we have the devilish Mrs. Coulter herself, brilliantly played by Wilson. It’s an insanely difficult part to play, yet her performance is so nuanced that she can convey the most complicated of emotions through the subtlest of expressions. It’s no wonder Hooper captures so many close-ups of her: Ruth Wilson is mesmerising in every scene she’s in, which is just perfect for Coulter. The way her voice quickly transitions between silky smooth and surprisingly menacing and aggressive is such a sharp turn that it really gives her scenes with Lyra a great sense of mood and atmosphere. You’re never sure quite what she’s going to do next, and neither is Lyra.
To say that I wasn’t a fan of Wilson’s casting would be a bit harsh, but I worried that she would play-up the more sinister aspects of the character, when Mrs. Coulter is so nuanced and unpredictable in the books. Well, I’m very happy to say that I was wrong to be concerned; Wilson knocks it out of the park with every facial tick, every line, every aspect of her performance. Case and point: the scene in which she accidentally lets slip that Lord Asriel is Lyra’s father. That was perfect, and the two actresses carried so much emotional weight that I just found myself transfixed by a twist that I already knew was coming, thanks to reading the books.
It is with a somewhat heavy heart then that I have to say that the rest of this episode doesn’t quite knock it out of the park in the same way. The scenes with the Gyptians naturally feel very perfunctory, as these characters’ roles in the story haven’t as of yet become clear to us, but the plot-thread with Lord Boreal is something that I’m also sceptical of. Boreal in the books is something of an enigma, and despite being set-up in Northern Lights, doesn’t become a key player until the second book, The Subtle Knife. Expanding Boreal’s role in the Northern Lights part of the show seems like a rather odd choice, and screenwriter Jack Thorne seems to be intent on playing this card a little early, including a surprising visit to ‘our’ world through a tear and an investigation into the affairs of Stanislaus Grumman (again, a character who isn’t key until The Subtle Knife).
Unlike in Northern Lights, Boreal doesn’t even meet Lyra at Mrs. Coulter’s party, which is about as much of a contribution as he has in that first instalment. To rework this role is potentially risky and could hurt the series when it reaches the story of The Subtle Knife next season. I worry that Thorne is expanding on an aspect of the story that didn’t need this level of expansion this early on and could encounter some narrative issues later on in the show’s run. Perhaps it’s more because of how glaring this change is when otherwise Thorne remains very faithful to Philip Pullman‘s first book. Even the extra material with Roger and Billy Costa imprisoned by the Gobblers is a great little addition for the show, but the plot-thread with Boreal feels like a step in the wrong direction at the moment, for me.
Overall, The Idea of North is admittedly very good but slightly less engaging. It’s filled with standout moments – again, Keen and Wilson are absolutely INCREDIBLE here – but otherwise, it can feel a bit perfunctory and raises a few questions for book-fans to worry over. Nevertheless, my excitement for the rest of the season remains unchanged, and I’m very much looking forward to the third episode next Sunday.