Television in Review: A Discovery of Witches

It begins with absence and desire, it begins with blood and fear, it begins with A Discovery of Witches. The opening credits of the Sky Original Production: A Discovery of Witches sums up perfectly what can be expected from this fantasy series.

A Discovery of Witches is a beautifully made show; it has the quality of being set in another world, particularly when shooting in ‘Oxford University, England’. I use the quotations because, in fact, some of the show was filmed in a studio in Wales (Bad Wolf productions), as well as filming on location in Wales and Venice. It is amazing how intricate and well designed the sets are, especially the Bodleian Library in the University; and then of course how the CGI helps to complete some of the sets, like the high ceiling in the Congregation room.

So, what’s it all about? Dr. Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) is a historian, originally from the US, but now situated in Oxford. Dr. Bishop comes across a manuscript in the Bodleian, Ashmole 782, which she uses for research, not initially realising its significance or power. This book acts almost as a character within the series because it is this that sparks all the action in the show. It is also known as the Book of Life, and it contains information as to how Daemons, Vampires, and Witches were created. Oh…did I mention Diana was also a witch? All of these creatures hide ‘in plain sight, fearful of discovery’ as the opening dialogue of each episode explains; they live among humans, pretending to be like them. Diana tries to suppress her magical heritage, refusing, as much as possible, to use the power within her, desperately wanting to be normal. But any façade of normality goes out the window when she opens that book; every creature that is within the area, and beyond, wants access to it, and Diana is the only one to have seen it after centuries of creatures believing it was lost forever. One man particularly invested is Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), a Professor of Biochemistry, interested in genetics, and a vampire. Matthew gets close to Diana in order to gain access to the book and learn more about his kind (yes, it does appear that vampires have a penchant for stalking).  However, interest gets mixed with a growing affection, and Matthew’s connection to Diana becomes less and less about Ashmole 782. Vampires and witches are not supposed to be involved romantically, according to the Congregation. The Congregation is an ancient order made up of nine members from all three creatures; they ensure that certain laws are upheld. One such law is that creatures of different species do not mix.

There is a lot that happens in A Discovery of Witches, and it helps if you’ve read the trilogy before coming to the series. The show is based on the first book of the same name by Deborah Harkness, herself a historian; so she knows her stuff, and most of the historical information in the books and show is accurate. There are some little nuggets of information given throughout the show that will have greater meaning to the readers, but which I’m assuming will be expanded in the second and third seasons. The first season was so successful in the UK that it has already been commissioned for two more seasons, to finish the story. It had not even been aired in the US by the time it was called for renewal.  

It was actually the trailer for this that intrigued me enough to read the All Souls trilogy before watching it; I’m a sucker for a forbidden romance. I have read that the show is being compared to Twilight; while you could make these comparisons, I would argue that A Discovery of Witches is more mature, especially the romance, with a heroine who has an inner strength.

I found that the two lead actors were spot on in their portrayal of Diana and Matthew, particularly Teresa Palmer, who captured the strength and vulnerability of her character. It’s interesting to see that when she gets closer to Matthew her outfits change from bold, bright colours, to more grey, soft colours, matching the dark tones of his clothes. It is a subtle reminder of their intimate connection. Matthew Goode was very charismatic in his vampire role, exuding an air of otherworldliness; dark and sexy, he embodied the barely leashed danger and anger that is inherent to his character’s personality. The chemistry between Palmer and Goode was brilliant; the intensity that they shared really came across on screen. The supporting cast was also great, especially with names like Alex Kingston and Lindsey Duncan. I particularly liked Edward Bluemel who played Matthew’s ‘son’ Marcus, and Aiysha Hart, who played Miriam, Matthew’s lab colleague. Both are big parts in the series, especially Marcus, although in the first book they’re not seen that often. It was great to see them getting more screen time than they would have got if they’d been fully sticking to the book; which for the most part, they did.

Certain scenes really stand out while watching this, one of which was the dance shared between Matthew and Diana in episode four. I loved the music used, Por Una Cabeza, the same song used in many other great film dance scenes, such as Scent of a Woman and True Lies. It is well shot, the camera moving in close to highlight the trust and intimacy between the characters, and then panning out, allowing the music to guide the scene.


This is a beautifully created series, the warm colours of its aura pervading the screen, sumptuous and elegant. A lot of detail went in to bring to life the world created by Deborah Harkness. This is a show that needs to be watched, but I would highly recommend you read the trilogy first in order to gain a full appreciation of its TV counterpart. If the popularity of this show is anything to go by, vampires…they’re still in.

 

By Shauna Fox – Film Writer

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