In ‘A Discovery Of Witches,’ Matthew Goode Makes the Nerd Girls Swoon
A Discovery of Witches (now streaming on Sundance and Shudder) is adapted from the first book in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. First published in 2011, it makes for a solid entry in my favorite literary genre, Grad Student Solves Supernatural Mystery Using Old Books—an oeuvre that also includes Katharine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide To Real Magic, and Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay. Inevitably, the heroine’s spiritual journey entails getting it on with a mysterious British man in a dark corner of a dusty library.
The eight-episode series compresses the book into a swoony cocktail of sex, history, and hocus-pocus à la Outlander. Two intelligent and attractive people, Oxford don Matthew Clairmont and visiting American historian Diana Bishop, meet cute in Oxford’s vast, atmospheric Bodleian Library. At first, the viewer can’t determine if he’s the bad guy, the hero, or just a creepy stalker with suspiciously acute olfactory and auditory powers. It soon transpires that he’s all of the above: a vampire who thinks Diana smells like trouble.
The near-perfect casting of the vampire/biochemist/oenophile keeps Discovery out of the streaming remainder bin. Matthew Goode, a thinking woman’s crumpet if ever there was one, plays him dreamily. Goode’s past services to England include helping Lady Mary get her groove back in Downton Abbey, cracking the Enigma code in The Imitation Game, and sweeping Princess Margaret off her feet and onto the back of his vintage Triumph Bonneville in The Crown.
Goode’s brooding presence alone would be enough to revitalize the undead-boyfriend genre, but this isn’t your typical tale of forbidden love between a vampire and a human. Diana descends from a line of powerful witches. She’s just found—or perhaps unknowingly conjured—a magical lost manuscript explaining the origins of witches, vampires, and demons. Matthew and several other, less-savory creatures have been seeking this sacred listicle for centuries.
A Discovery Of Witches presents a nerd-girl fantasy that strikes close to this former grad student’s heart: the notion that one’s often tedious academic research is both crucially important to the fate of humanity and, at the same time, the key to knowing oneself. Harkness, a USC history professor, understands that vampires and academics alike are driven by the thrill of the hunt. The prospect of magically summoning a long-missing tome from the depths of one of the oldest and largest libraries in Europe is a very specific sort of wish fulfillment.
You’d think witches and vampire would fight on the same side in the battle over the book, but they don’t. As Goode’s demon buddy helpfully puts it: “She’s a witch, you’re a vampire. You know the rules.” Diana’s colleague in the Classics department, a witch who’s relatably bitter about her adjunct status, warns: “They hate us as much as we hate them.” Even Matthew protests that he doesn’t date “warmbloods.” But this only makes the couple’s mutual attraction seem all the more fated.
In Harkness’ world, vampires don’t bother with normal vampire pastimes like avoiding garlic, crucifixes, and daylight. Covens resemble book clubs, and it’s never made clear what exactly demons do. At first, Diana uses her powers reluctantly and for purely practical purposes, like cleaning up scattered papers, and reaching books on high shelves. As witches do, she slays on the dance floor, where she and Matthew tango to tune from Scent of a Woman, an on-the-nose reference by any definition. Meanwhile, Matthew’s vampirism manifests itself as the stuff of a stereotypical May/December romance rather than a paradigm-shattering cosmic mésalliance. He enjoys refined taste in wine and an enviable property portfolio, and pompously name-drops famous friends like Charles Darwin and Queen Elizabeth—the First.
Not Enough Banging
At the same time, Discovery pays its respects to classic vampire tropes, laced with Dark Shadows-style sudsiness. When someone remarks “You never look tired!” or “Are you following me?” or “I’m perfectly in control,” we know it’s only a matter of time before the supernatural shit hits the fan. When Matthew tells Diana “Our hearts don’t beat…VERY OFTEN,” it’s pungent cheese, but damn if Goode doesn’t sell it. As Diana, Teresa Palmer seems more concerned with nailing her faux-American accent than with acting, but she doesn’t have to do much except stand there and look pretty while the plot and pixie dust swirl around her.
Oxford, Venice, and the Scottish Highlands provide suitably misty, moody backdrops for the magical mumbo-jumbo and angsty eye-banging (but not enough actual banging). Think of A Discovery of Witches as Harry Potter for grown-ass women, or a Masterpiece Theater version of Twilight. Accio, remote!