Monday 7 January 2008

The Golden Compass (2007)

Monday 7 January 2008
Writer & Director: Chris Weitz (based on the novel by Philip Pullman)

Cast: Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Nicole Kidman (Marisa Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Ian McKellen (Iorek Byrnison, voice), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson, voice), Sam Elliot (Lee Scoresby), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Freddie Highmore (Pantalaimon, voice), Ben Walker (Roger Parslow), Claire Higgins (Ma Costa), Jim Carter (John Faa), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Kathy Bates (Hester, voice), Kristin Scott Thomas (Stelmaria, voice), Jack Shepherd (Master Of Jordan College), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel), Magda Szubanski (Mrs Lonsdale), Christopher Lee (High Councilor) & Derek Jacobi (Magisterial Emissary)

In a parallel universe dominated by the Magistereum, a young girl attempts to rescue her kidnapped friend in the arctic north...

In a blatant attempt to build itself another Lord Of The Rings-style blockbuster trilogy (a teaser trailer even had the One Ring morph into this flicks' golden compass), the first of Philip Pullman's intelligent, sophisticated and unique fantasy adventures gets a Hollywood adaptation. From the guy who made American Pie.

Okay, that's a cheap-shot. I actually have some respect for Chris Weitz, who showed considerable commitment to the project, and at least seemed to be an anglophile (after he successfully adapted and directed Nick Hornby novel About A Boy.) But, his screenplay for The Golden Compass may contain all the ingredients of Pullman's novel, but it snips away all hint of religious controversy and dumbs down the source material to spoon-feed the literary-aloof.

I expected as much. It's not that The Golden Compass is particularly anti-religion (anti-establishment, really), and it's easily the simplest of the His Dark Materials trilogy to translate into a kid's film. But seeing Pullman's multi-faceted plot and ideas condensed into weak-sauce excuse for a plodding adventure is just inexcusable.

For readers of the novels, you know you're in trouble when the film's opening narration explains parallel universes and daemons (animal "spirit guides" that accompany every character.) The book isn't forthcoming about what a daemon is, or that multiple dimensions are involved in the storyline, for ages... but Weitz's film just dumps all that information on your lap in the first 5 minutes.

Consequently, the sense of discovery is totally missing from The Golden Compass. There are developments in the remaining books (The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) that are now clearly signposted by The Golden Compass film.

So, armed with full knowledge of parallel worlds and daemons, the film basically becomes a not-very-thrilling adventure for Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a girl on the cusp of adolescence whose best friend Roger (Ben Walker) is kidnapped by "The Gobblers". Lyra takes it upon herself to find him, helped by a truth-telling alethiometer (the titular "golden compass", which it actually doesn't refer to – ask Pullman.)

Lyra's soon off to the frozen north to find her explorer uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, wasted and miscast), whilst being pursued by icy villainess Ms Coulter (Nicole Kidman, perfect). Along the way she secures the help of a talking bear Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen, a distracting Lord Of The Rings reminder), chats with a sexy witch (Eva Green) and inexplicably becomes best friends with Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott, out-acted by his moustache).

Throw in some unfocused musing on "Dust", a tyrannical Magistereum, a hazy witch prophecy, some helpful gyptians, and a horrifying project to split children from their daemons -- and you have quite a perplexing mix of ideas for anyone who hasn't read the books!

I can see the problems Weisz had in making The Golden Compass a standalone movie (as sequels were not guaranteed like Rings and Potter), but in over-explaining some elements and under-explaining others... you just never get a proper handle on anything. And this is coming from someone who has read the books!

But there are some positives. Dakota Blue Richards is shaky to begin with, but settles into the role quickly, turning Lyra into a plausible young heroine by the time the arctic-set sequences arrive. It really would have been disastrous if they'd miscast Lyra, so thank heavens for small mercies that Richards doesn't disappoint.

Nicole Kidman is a great choice for Ms Coulter – personally asked to star by author Pullman, who really should have insisted on the quality control J.K Rowling secured for her Harry Potter books. Kidman's beautiful and suitably chilling, particularly when her daemon (a mute, golden monkey) is on hand to help creep out audiences.

Yes, the daemons are one aspect of Pullman's novel that are done full justice. These animal spirits provide Golden Compass with its one unique idea (everything else has a faint Narnia/LOTR smell about it), and are nicely realized by CGI. Talking animals will never fully work on-screen (their mouths aren't designed for speech, see), but it's great fun to see the kid's daemons shape-shifting, and the idea that pain is shared between a human and their daemon is quite unsettling.

The polar bears are similarly strong, with the standout action moment being a bear fight between Iorek and bear king Ragnar Sturlusson (an unrecognizable Ian McShane.) Actually, it's pretty much the only action moment worth caring about, and will likely wake a few people up from their slumber.

You see, The Golden Compass is a book at heart, and while it contains a number of visual ideas that beg for a screen adaptation, it doesn't really have as much cinematic splendour. The second book is even less cinematic, as it largely takes place in "our world", so you'll have to wait for the third book's showdown to get your whizz-bang thrills...

But is it likely we'll see The Amber Spyglass in cinemas one day? The Golden Compass flopped in the US and, despite the fact it did well overseas and will turn a profit, will its poor domestic box-office cause New Line to cut and run? I hope so; for the sake of completion, but also because the next books get down to the nitty-gritty and will be near-impossible to castrate. The idea does boil down to kids trying to kill God, after all!

So, will the studio have the balls to plough ahead with the trickier sequels, but get in a director with better credentials to handle the material? Weitz gave it his best shot, but he's clearly the Christopher Columbus of His Dark Materials... and we need an Alfonso Cuaron. Quickly too, before Dakota Blue Richards grows up!

Above all, studio execs need to realize that these children's books were successful not in spite of their "controversial" subject matter, but because of it. They were an interesting and provocative mirror to C.S Lewis' pro-Christian Narnia saga, and didn't speak down to their young readers. We should have got a film that stayed true to Philip Pullman's principles, not danced around them with talking bears and flying witches.

A disappointing (but watchable) adaptation for the book's fans, but diverting entertainment for newcomers. Just don't expect to be riveted to your seat, totally understand what's going on, or be rewarded with a decent climax -- the film oddly glides to a premature end, even though the book has a proper cliffhanger it could have reached with better pacing...

New Line Cinema
Budget: $180 million
113 minutes