Find­ing its di­rec­tion

While flawed, The Golden Com­pass is largely true to Pull­man’s book, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews - Don­ald Clarke

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

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