The Golden Compass
Jorge Costa 19/12/2007
Film adaptations don't come much more sanitised than 'The Golden Compass'. Based on Philip Pullman's controversial 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, New Line had a fantastic opportunity to create something moving, thrilling and earth-shatteringly profound. This is a trilogy which (gracefully) attacks the corruption and hypocrisy of organised religion and its abuse of power, one which provides an infinite possibility of adventure through infinite possible worlds and one which ingeniously represents our nature and growth by taking place in a world where our souls (called 'daemons') are external animal manifestations.
New Line didn't seem to recognise this and instead seemingly opted to make a straightforward blockbuster out of 'Northern Lights'. Or maybe they did, but as soon as the American Christian fundamentalists started to light their torches and sharpen their pitchforks, they promptly took the book to the guillotine and exorcised it of any heretic material. The result is a film lacking any emotional involvement and, after the initial glorious shot of a million worlds floating in space, any sense of wonder. In essence, while the story centres on fighting for your very own soul, the film has had its own cruelly ripped away.
Christ Weitz is clearly a fan, but New Line has given him an opening the size of a needle's eye for him to walk this mammoth story through and so we end up with a film reaching just over an hour and a half comprising of a checklist of the book's main events. The story centres on Lyra (newcomer, Dakota Blue Richards) as she is entrusted with an alethiometer - a truth-telling device that only she can read and must use to uncover the mystery behind the recent child abductions affecting the country. The journey takes her from Oxford to London to the North Pole, where she meets Gyptians ('sea people'), witches, armoured bears and aeronauts while all the while being chased by the villainous Magisterium, but there's never any sense of true accomplishment, spectacle or surprise. Lyra might as well have booked herself onto a highly uneventful Easy Jet flight to Scandinavia.
The film hurtles along at an uneven pace so that, unlike 'The Lord of the Rings', there is very little character development regarding anyone who isn't Lyra or the nefarious Miss Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Characters like Eva Green's witch, Serefina Pekkala, and the who's who of British thespians that make up the Magisterium (Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee, Simon McBurney, etc.) end up becoming mere mouthpieces for when Weitz decides to sneak in some of Pullman's deeper themes. Sam Elliot, as the Texan aeronaut, and Ian McKellen, who voices the banished bear-king, Iorek Byrnison, fare much better, but it is Richards' and Kidman's show all the way.
Richards perfectly nails down the tom-boyish, unruly nature of Lyra. She's the kind of character who would probably trip up Harry Potter if he ran past her and throw mud at Lucy Pevensie if she got too close to her beloved Jordan College. She's deceitful, but fierce, loyal and brave. Kidman, who Pullman always had in mind to play Coulter, similarly understands the nature of her character and it comes across in a key scene in which she viciously spanks her monkey daemon, before softly cooing it with words of comfort.
These two are almost upstaged by the shear grandeur of the visuals. From the golden hues of Oxford, to the frosty blues of the North, the intricate craftsmanship of the aletiometer and the stunning Wren-meets-Verne skyline of London, 'The Golden Compass' is a masterpiece of production design and animation. The movements of each individual's daemon are fluid and highly expressive and Weitz and his special effects team achieve a fantastic showdown between Iorek and the false bear king (voice by Ian McShane).
It is a shame then, that through New Line's desperation for this become their new money maker, they didn't give the same treatment to the story. It is as if, after throwing a reported $250 million at this thing, they lost complete faith in their product and this even extends to the bizarre decision to cut away the last three chapters of the film robbing the audience of a cliff-hanger ending and taking away an emotional blast that would have done the film a world of good. 'The Golden Compass' may be pretty to look at, but it is thematically substantial as a pile of dust. And not the kind that the film goes on about.