Finding its direction
While flawed, The Golden Compass is largely true to Pullman’s book, writes
THE GOLDEN COMPASS Directed by Chris Weitz. Starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Eva Green, Sam Elliott, Clare Higgins, Derek Jacobi, Kristen Scott Thomas, Tom Courtenay, Christopher Lee, voices of Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Kathy Bates 12A cert, gen release, 113 min
THE burden of expectation hanging over the opening episode in the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s peerless His Dark Materials trilogy must have been oppressive for the filmmakers. Christmas has become the season for fantasy epics, but not all such releases have spawned the desired sequels. Do we have another Narnia on our hands or an Eragon?
Then there are the intellectual considerations. Whereas Narnia was seen by some as Christian propaganda, The Golden Compass is based on a series of novels that – whatever the picture’s weaselly production notes may claim – argues very strongly against organised religion. The film will have to work hard to avoid being caught in the crossfire of the cultural wars.
Poor Chris Weitz. This is a lot of pressure to place on a director who gained notoriety by encouraging teens to hump pastries in American Pie.
On balance, Weitz just about gets away with it. The Golden Compass is a trifle rushed, relies too heavily on spoken exposition, has a terrible score and features an uneven juvenile performance from Dakota Blue Richards. But the story is so robust that it still ends up being a tad more entertaining than the first Narnia film.
Though the ending of the novel has been cut (readers who remember how the second volume begins will discern the strategy) the script remains reasonably faithful to its gripping source material.
Set in a parallel universe where all humans are accompanied by a manifestation of their soul (or id) in the form of an animal, the picture finds Richards playing Lyra Belacqua, a young girl compelled to join forces with glamorous witches, fighting bears and a cowboy aviator (Sam Elliott) against a conspiracy organised by a sinister body called the Magisterium.
When agents of this unlovely entity kidnap some of her friends, Lyra, who lives under the protection of her glamorous uncle (Daniel Craig) in a steampunk version of Oxford, takes her cue from the titular golden apparatus and heads north to secure their release.
There has been some speculation that the script may have been eviscerated of anti- theistic asides to avoid angering Middle-American Christians. Well, though robust believers should still enjoy the film, few will mistake the Magisterium – an authoritarian, quasi-religious force that stifles debate and promotes belief in a class of original sin – as an allegorical model of the Campaign for Real Ale. The books’ implied criticism of religion remains very much in evidence.
The compromises resulting from the time constraints are considerably more troubling. The requirement to cram so much story into such a comparatively small space results in a breathless pace and a perfunctory approach to characterisation that may confuse viewers not familiar with the source material.
Nicole Kidman, who certainly has the right glacial malevolence for the evil Mrs Coulter, manages to make something of her role. But Craig has little to do but simmer, and Richards seems undecided whether to attempt a Norfolk accent or not.
Still, there is no denying that The Golden Compass offers two compelling hours of lavish entertainment. The computergenerated backgrounds, though they never look like anything other than computer-generated backgrounds, recall the cover illustrations of science fiction novels from the golden age and do a decent job of replicating the blend of antiquity and futurism in Pullman’s novels.
Ultimately it is the virtues of those books – their graceful meditations on theology; their tragic depiction of human fragility – that allow the film to live on screen. It’s deeply flawed, but probably just good enough to guarantee production of the remaining two episodes.
Cold steel: Nicole Kidman as the evil Mrs Coulter