It begins with absence and desire. It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches…
If you are a fan of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy then you know those words well. If not, you can read them in the opening credits of all eight episodes of A Discovery of Witches.
The Sky UK series, adapted from the first book in Harkness’s trilogy, which aired last year in Britain will make its debut this week on both Sundance Now and Shudder.
Set in a world where humans unknowingly live alongside vampires, witches, and daemons, A Discovery of Witches tells the story of Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), a reluctant witch and historian, who has dedicated her life to the study of the history of science. When she unknowingly calls up a book in Oxford’s Bodleian Library that creatures have sought for centuries, she finds herself sitting on a powder keg whose explosion could rock the entire world.
Enter Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), a 1500 year old vampire with an interest in genetics and biochemistry who begins keeping tabs on Diana, from afar at first. The two soon find their lives inextricably bound to one another in defiance of the Congregation, the creature governing body, and the Covenant, a strict code of conduct that forbids relationships between the species.
What has been so fascinating since the first novel was released in 2011 is how very real the world that Harkness created seems, and that translates beautifully to the visual medium, largely in thanks to production designer James North’s brilliant sets.
Their world is our world, and their struggles reflect our own.
There is an established hierarchy in the creature realm with vampires and witches struggling for the top spot while daemons, who have only a single extra chromosome that separates them from human beings, simply fight to retain their place at the table.
Over the centuries, this power struggle created and then ingrained bigotry and prejudice among the races.
The nearly indestructible vampires both covet and fear the witch’s power. The witches view vampires and their predatory natures as no better than animals. Both look upon daemons, whose creativity can border on chaos and mania, as “less than”, an attitude that, rightfully, garners no end of resentment from daemons toward the other two.
What a starkly honest mirror it holds up to the world in which we live, and how often we fall prey to the very bigotry that is played out in the series among supernatural beings.
As I mentioned before, James North’s set designs are immaculately arranged. Each location, from Matthew’s ancestral home Sept-Tours to the home where Diana, herself, grew up, is wonderfully textured and gives off the aura of age and history.
For their part, Palmer and Goode embody their characters admirably.
Palmer’s Diana is as intelligent and beautiful as she is stubborn. She never falls prey to the damsel in distress that we’ve seen in so many stories like this one. She chafes against the bindings of a centuries old prophecy to retain her own identity, opening up to Matthew slowly in a way that speaks to the historian’s natural curiosity.
Goode, meanwhile, embodies Matthew as though he was born to play the role. He seamlessly shifts from scientist to poet to hunter to warrior and back again, though that last seems to come less easy to the actor.
The supporting cast of A Discovery of Witches is filled with notable names giving stellar performances. It is also more racially diverse than we often see in shows like this one.
There is hardly enough time or space here to write about all the terrific performances in the series, but a few must be highlighted.
Lindsay Duncan is at her most regal as Matthew’s perfectly-coiffed vampiric mother, Ysabeau de Clermont. There is never a doubt that each movement she makes is as carefully chosen as her immaculate wardrobe, nor that she can be a deadly hunter one moment and a maven of social etiquette and grace the next. It is a lesson in reserved power that many actors would do well to learn.
Alex Kingston is the exact opposite as Diana’s aunt Sarah Bishop. Passionate with an extremely short-fused temper, Sarah along with her partner Emily Mather, played with calming compassion by the equally talented Valarie Pettiford, raised Diana after her parents were murdered when she was a child.
Their relationship is both entirely believable and perfectly balanced, and the actresses and writers should both be lauded for such an honest portrayal of an extraordinary lesbian couple.
Tanya Moodie is, in many ways, the all-mother of the show as Agatha Wilson. A stylish daemon and a member of the Congregation, Wilson is a highly-protective mother with a sense of social justice and an intrinsic understanding of what is at stake for her own child as well as the rest of her kind.
Owen Teale and Trevor Eve compete with sinister gusto for the top spot as the series’ villainous Peter Knox and Gerbert D’Aurillac, a witch and vampire, respectively, and Elarica Johnson sizzles as the all too lethally obsessed Juliette Durand, a role that is quite expanded from her one or two scenes in the source material.
As a reviewer and avid reader, I am ever-fascinated by the process of adaptation, and series writer Kate Brooke makes interesting and bold choices throughout the eight episodes of the series expanding characters and scenes while trimming other subplots to keep the action of the story moving while stay true to Harkness’s novel.
Those who have read the book know that it is told almost entirely from Diana’s perspective, and while we are certain that there are conspiracies going on around her, we are often left to wonder exactly who is moving which pieces.
Not so, in the series, as Brooke takes us often into the very halls of the Congregation to make us privy to the politics, power plays, and infighting of that governing body, and how their movements ripple through the very existence of the creatures of the world.
My advice to those who are ardent fans of the novels is to relax your grip on the characters and story and allow Brooke, along with series directors Sarah Walker, Alice Troughton, and Juan Carlos Medina, to guide you through this familiar story, even though the path may different than you remember it.
All eight episodes of the series will be available January 17, 2019 on both Sundance Now and Shudder, and I cannot recommend enough that you experience the absence and desire, blood and fear, and the masterful, decadent storytelling of A Discovery of Witches.