The critically acclaimed adaptation of Philip Pullman’s book series returns for its second outing, remaining a visual spectacle and ramping up the tension for an upcoming battle.
Starring Dafne Keen, Amir Wilson, Ruth Wilson, Ruta Gedmintas, Jade Anouka, Will Keen, Sean Gilder, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ariyon Bakare, James McAvoy, Nina Sosanya, Andrew Scott, and Kit Connor
It seems almost baffling to believe that it’s been a year since Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), stepped through a rip in the very universe, into worlds unknown. If ever there were a time when such an idea were more palatable, it would be now.
The premiere episode of Series 2 sees our principal characters Lyra and Will (Amir Wilson) finally interacting, in the new location of Cittàgazze. As it turns out, this is far from the sunny holiday that its Italian-inspired location suggests, as it is beset with spectres who prey upon adults, rendering them mere shells, though are invisible to children.
Back in Lyra’s world, however, a war is fast approaching and battle lines are drawn. Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is at her most sinister here, a glimmering red femme fatale aboard a dark, smoky submarine. It’s abundantly clear from the first moment that she is on screen that Coulter is entirely in charge, despite what those around her might believe. Using her sexuality and cunning as valuable tools, she is next found dedicating herself to torturing a witch, using a common pair of tweezers as if they were the most threatening weapon in existence. From moment to moment, it’s almost impossible to predict what Coulter is going to do next. Yet, there’s something oddly compelling about her performance, and the way that every line seems to strike that eerie balance between sensual and terrifying.
The witches are supremely realised here, as we finally see them demonstrating a bit more of their terrifying potential, unleashed upon the submarine. A new addition to the cast, Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) successfully manages to infiltrate the submarine in a visually stunning, and tense fight sequence, which makes it clear that tensions between the Magisterium and the witches are reaching a breaking point.
A strong point throughout the episode is just how visually stunning it is, and how many different locations we see compared to the first series. Towards the end of the first series, the episodes were essentially white washed with constant snow, so it’s somewhat of a relief to see multiple well-realised locations here. Cittàgazze is a beautiful, Mediterranean-inspired island, almost resembling an Italian Mont Saint-Michel, and these sunny sequences are the perfect contrast to the brooding, atmospheric submarine that the Magisterium inhabit.
There are also some brilliant balances in the tone throughout the episode. From wonderful comedic moments, such as Lyra refusing to bathe or desperately trying to cook an “om-lat”, these are the perfect breathers compared to the difficult to watch sections of Mrs Coulter savouring her torture of a helpless witch.
Unfortunately, there is a sense of uncertainty as to what to expect next. Most of series 1 was motivated by the desire to free Roger and the other children who had been captured by the Magisterium to be experimented upon. Now that Roger is dead, and Lyra has abandoned her world, it’s tricky to predict what other threats the Magisterium have up their sleeve. We know that they disapprove of Dust and are essentially hyper-religious zealots, but what threat do they actually pose, especially to Lyra, considering she is no longer part of her universe?
Nevertheless, there is a clear sense of a direction here, even though as somebody who has not read the books, it may be tricky to predict. There are rumblings of a prophecy, which seems so important that it necessitated a witch killing another just to keep it secret, and also seems to have something to do with Lyra herself, and for that reason the walls do seem to be closing in around our young heroes.
There are brilliant performances throughout the episode. Dafne Keen is as engaging as ever with her portrayal of Lyra, managing to successfully balance her increasing cynicism and exhaustion with a different sense of immaturity. Lyra is certainly a character who has been forced into adulthood far before her time, but next to Will, another character who performs a role they are perhaps not ready for, it becomes apparent just how chaotic and childish Lyra can be. Her cavalier attitude towards her own hygiene, and watching her fumble around to make dinner just highlight how, behind her affected veneer from fighting the Magisterium, she still just a child. It makes Lord Asriel’s betrayal all the more potent, and Lyra’s continuing feelings of guilt over Roger’s death are going to prove integral for her character development going forwards.
Will is also a highlight throughout this episode. Wilson and Keen bounce off each other brilliantly, and their meeting and interaction is as satisfying as the audience imagined it would be. While Will may not be acquainted with the magical ways of the multiverse, he proves himself to be more than valuable at providing the practical life skills that the pair need to survive, which really sells the two as a good match moving forwards.
Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) continues to be incredible levels of sinister, even though the Magisterium’s motivations beyond being autocratic and finding Dust sinister aren’t wholly well developed yet. Hopefully the coming episodes work to make this subplot seem more of an active threat.
Ultimately, “The City of Magpies” is a wonderful start to this season. It wonderfully sets up the pieces necessary for the rest of the series to thrive, by introducing an entirely new world and conflict. It continues to be visually stunning and well shot, thanks to director Tom Hooper, as well as being well paced and balanced tonally by writer Jack Thorne. Hopefully the oncoming wave of plot doesn’t overshadow the brilliant performances from our heroic leads.