THE GOLDEN COMPASS

Now I know this is a somewhat belated review, what with the film having been out for two weeks now, but I have to say it is that which has inspired me to put something up about this film. Why that is will hopefully become clear...

Chris WeitzBased on the first novel in the His Dark Materials from author Phillip Pullman Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker, Eva Green, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee,Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen (voice), Freddie Highmore (voice), Ian McShane (voice), Kristin Scott Thomas (voice), Kathy Bates (voice) Distributed by New Line Cinema Film was released on 5th December 2007 in the U.K. Review by Michael Edwards

rating: 2.5

Now I know this is a somewhat belated review, what with the film having been out for two weeks now, but I have to say it is that which has inspired me to put something up about this film. Why that is will hopefully become clear... For those of you who have been hiding away somewhere reclusive for the past few weeks, perhaps avoiding the consumer-driven festivities of the season or simply escaping the icy harshness of winter in sunnier climes, The Golden Compass is one of the big-billed Christmas blockbusters and is based on the first installment of novelist Phillip Pullman's widely acclaimed and much-loved His Dark Materials trilogy. The tale is set in a parallel universe where our souls are physically separate from us and embodied in animal-shaped 'daemons' which stay with their human partner throughout their lives, feeling the same pain, and sharing the same fate. The plot follows Lyra Belacqua who embarks on an adventure, armed with a mystical truth seeking device known as an Alethiometer, to find the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of local children, and to help her uncle in his quest to uncover the power of a strange substance known only as 'dust'. Given that my opinion of the feature is so weak, and so late in reaching you guys, I am proposing that rather than this being a review, that I summarise what I've perceived as the consensus on the film in order to glean some sort of 'angle' on it. Because I am genuinely 100% unequivocally nonplussed about it, I am bordering on the abyss of opinionlessness which is a crisis for any reviewer or man of strong convictions such as myself. What's more, I would love to hear back from you all as to whether you empathise with my disinterest, or if you think you can spark some sort of opinion in me! Firstly, with regards to the relative fuss made about the digression from the original novel. I read the books about 10 years ago now, so it remains a fuzzy nostalgic memory. But as far as I gather the changes amount to a change in the hair colour of Mrs. Coulter, a slight shift in the chronology for ease of cinematic narrative, and ending the film before the novel ends: a calculated ploy I bet to retain some drama for the sequel as well as remove some nastiness (I'll say no more for fear of spoiling the fun) in order to keep in tune with the festive spirit of its release date. We could also debate the relative merits of using the American title of the book rather than the original British title ('Northern Lights') but that has to be put down to taste. To my mind, none of these issues are really that big a deal. There were about as many of such quibbles with Harry Potter films, and even more with the Lord of the Ringstrilogy (I personally never came to terms with the absence of Radagast) and they did perfectly well. Secondly, the toning down of Pullman's critique of the Church (with a deliberately capitalised 'C') embedded in the evil organisation called the Magesterium was indicted by atheists and Pullman fanatics alike. But forgive me for being facetious, but this is a film targeted at an American audience, an audience that has a significant Christian population, and an audience that has to be wooed to recoup the massive budget spent. Toning down the parallels is a minor matter in that context. In fact, I'm of the view that it's a wonder that a story which is so overtly critical of the dominance of the ruling elite, be it religious or not, was able to be made in Hollywood. So what's the fuss about? Thirdly, the budget. A matter which has polarised many a film commentator, including my esteemed colleagues here at OWF. This is a matter which I have a slight opinion on: the actors involved are pretty high profile, that's a given for a blockbuster, they need big and therefore expensive names on board. But why oh why choose actors who look nothing like the descriptions in the books? These are among the best loved books in the English-speaking world, and even beyond, so it would seem logical to have faith in the pictures painted in Pullman's words. Likewise the undoubtedly costly CGI did not particularly wow me. The scenery was mostly icy and did little to rival the expansive lands of LOTR, but nonetheless some scenes were impressive (Magesterium HQ, alternative Oxford were both pretty lush in my humble eyes). And the bear fight was equally awesome, unless of course compared to some of the great shots in Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, but we won't go there. And finally, the absence of Pullman's subtle presentation of the nuances of this alternate universe. The closeness of the bond with a daemon, carefully crafted character development and perfectly paced unfolding of the layers of intrigue at play in this mysterious world. There is no doubt that this does not come through in the film, but it could never do so in the short time allotted for a tightly genre-d family/Christmas eye-candy fest. LOTR, in particular Return of the King, provides another perfect example of how these things have to be condensed or modified to reflect their new mode of expression. Nonetheless, I think the final point brings me as close to an opinion as I got. By trying to crush Pullman's deft writing style into a universally appealing blockbuster, Weitz (rightly in my view) looked to visually represent certain qualities. Kidman's Coulter became glistening and golden, emanating an aura which hoped to create some of the captivating intensity of her literary incarnation, Craig's Asriel was portrayed with a quiet power and occasional fiery outburst which hinted at the dark inner drive that convulsed within his textual alter-ego, and Lyra's exacerbated feistiness substituted for an insatiable curiosity which wove her into the web of intrigue. These all seem reasonable ideas, but perhaps they were bound to fall short in such an ambitious project. But perhaps they weren't, and have simply served to produce a palatable piece of easily digested cinema that serves its purpose but neither butchers or adequately captures the richness of the original novel. As far as I'm concerned, that's fine. I'll just let it wash over me while I wait for more original and involving movies to emerge and grab my attention. So on that note of ambivalence, I beseech you to have an opinion for me, and leave with the promise that I have reviews forthcoming that will appear prior to or in sync with the release dates of the films! The Golden Compass is out in UK cinemas now. Watch it... or don't. I don't care.
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Michael J Edwards hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.