The simplest way to describe Sundance Now’s latest fantasy epic, A Discovery of Witches, is to dub it a Harry–Potter-meets-Twilight crossover for adults.
The headline practically writes itself and it’s the kind of slug that would bait all the clicks on Twitter. The temptation to write the show off as fanfiction for romantically-starved genre-lovers is even harder to deny when you’re looking at the bare-bones of this new series. An Oxford-studying witch, reluctant to use her seemingly limitless abilities, meets a mysterious, otherworldly vampire. Sparks fly, blood cravings follow – it’s the catnip guaranteed to hook disciples of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers who have aged enough to be turned off by teenage angst and high school woes. But I’m going to forgo the easy route with this review and instead, give A Discovery of Witches its rightful due.
This show is not Harry–Potter-meets-Twilight despite hints of magical prophecies, forbidden interspecies romances and plenty of screen time for historic English libraries and lovely Venetian canals (I could spend this entire review gushing about the lush cinematography and predicting a rise in “French castle” bookings on Airbnb), though it occasionally trades in some of the same tropes.
For instance, the series’ main character is a young witch named Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) a woman completely unaware of the scope of her powers, thrust into a foreign world of creatures mere humans believe to be folklore, after happening upon an ancient tome that’s been missing for centuries and might just hold the key to the creation of life itself. Diana’s content to bike around her idyllic Oxford campus, shuffle to the picturesque Bodleian library spending hours combing the racks for works on alchemy and the melding of magic and science. She enjoys a pint at the pub, a row on the river, and has absolutely no interest in testing her magical abilities. Her parents were murdered for being powerful witches and that kind of trauma really leaves a mark.
Of course, Diana is a rather passive character in her own life for most of the show’s first season, which means, whether she wills it or not, magic eventually comes knocking and it comes knocking in the form of a book believed to have disappeared hundreds of years ago. Witches, vampires, demons, they’ve all been searching for it, hoping it might explain why their respective species seem to be dying out. Diana’s ability to call the book from the stacks of the Bodleian, seemingly at will, attracts one such creature, a thousand-year-old vampire named Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode).
He’s a geneticist, a professor at the university, one who’s drawn to Diana not just because of the book but because of her powers and their undeniable chemistry. The romance between the two, more than the supernatural happenings, is what feels most worthy of that Twilight comparison. There’s the expected push-and-pull, the will-they-won’t-they, although we all know they most certainly will.
I’ve no doubt Goode spawned the origin of the phrase “tall, dark, and handsome” and he puts in a worthy performance as a world-weary immortal struggling against his own nature and his desire for a woman who is, by all accounts, off limits. It’s no easy task to growl, snarl, and grimace your way through loaded love scenes but the guy’s got an inherent charisma that forces us to forget his character’s darker nature.
Palmer too delivers the kind of bushy-haired, wide-eyed act expected of a woman unearthing long-buried secrets of an underworld she’s been ignorant of for most of her life. She carries the burden of selling this story with ease, flitting between awe and anger, confusion, despair, lust, and intrigue with an earnestness and charm that demands trust from us, the viewers. And the pair has an electric sort of chemistry, an obvious rapport that makes moments when Matthew issues thinly-veiled threats and challenges Diana to accept her true nature much more charged than the pared-down script might intend.