The Golden Compass

Rating 2½

Written and directed by Chris Weitz, based on the novel ‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman

Starring Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Derek Jacobi, Tom Courtenay, Jim Carter, Eva Green, Clare Higgins, Christopher Lee, Simon McBurney, Jack Shepherd and Ben Walker : Voices by Ian McKellen, Freddie Highmore, Ian McShane, Kristin Scott Thomas and Kathy Bates

In an alternate universe, parallel to our own, the souls of people walk alongside them in the form of various animals and birds. These are called daemons.

Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is the orphaned niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) and is being cared for and receiving education at his alma mater Jordan College. Asriel discovers evidence of “dust”, the substance that binds together the infinite number of parallel universes, and secures funds from the college to travel to the far north to investigate further. This goes against the wishes of the Magisterium, the ruling authority that wishes to keep all evidence and knowledge of dust a secret.

In Asriel’s absence, Lyra becomes the “assistant” to the mysterious Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who says she plans to mount her own expedition into the far north. Before she leaves the college, Lyra is secretly entrusted with the last surviving alethiometer, a golden compass that, when used and interpreted correctly, can provide truth and answers to questions.

Lyra discovers that Mrs Coulter has something to do with the Gobblers, who kidnap children, and escapes, eventually finding refuge with the Gyptian, seafaring people led by John Faa (Jim Carter). From here she meets Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), the witch queen, as well as the aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) and lorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), an armour-clad warrior polar bear. Scoresby and Byrnison are recruited to her aid as she continues her journey to find her uncle.

I have never read ‘His Dark Materials’, the trilogy of fantasy books written by the English novelist Philip Pullman that begins with ‘Northern Lights’ (retitled ‘The Golden Compass’ in the US), but the film feels like a very sketchy and inadequate interpretation of the novel. It has a running time in excess of 110 minutes (admittedly, about ten minutes of this is given over to the ludicrously long list of visual effects credits at the end), but it always feels rushed and paper-thin, rather as if it is a basic outline of the screenplay rather than the finished product. The ending, in particular, is a damp squib, although this is perhaps not the fault of the film since it is only one part of a much bigger story.

I recall that British film critics were very taken with the twelve-year-old Dakota Blue Richards, making her film debut here, even if later on the Daily Telegraph published a news story describing her as a “yob” because she was allegedly one of a group of teenage girls responsible for destroying a snowman in Hove in East Sussex.

I felt that Richards’ accent sometimes slipped into “Cor blimey, ‘enry ‘iggins!” territory, but she was very engaging and clearly has screen presence. The largely British cast is excellent and Nicole Kidman adds some star quality to the proceedings. She apparently turned down the role initially, before she was persuaded to take it on in a personal letter from Philip Pullman. In a real coup for the film, the theme song is written and sung by the mercurial Kate Bush.

With a production budget of $180 million, the copious CGI effects would be expected to be state-of-the-art. They are that and they are undoubtedly impressive, but they never look like anything other than special effects. For all the money spent and the technical expertise utilised, they somehow never look real.

The film grossed a little over $70 million in the US, a very poor showing given the monumental budget. It grossed a much more satisfactory $302 million in the rest of the world. However, I suspect the comparatively low American gross must place a question mark over plans to film ‘The Subtle Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass’, the other novels in the trilogy.

Based primarily on John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and first published between 1995 and 2000, the novels have become best sellers and have also created a degree of controversy regarding the religious imagery and perceived criticism of organised Christian religions. The film version of ‘The Golden Compass’ dilutes this, the Magisterium no longer portrayed as a representation of the Catholic Church, largely in an attempt to make it palatable to American religious sensibilities, but it was still criticised, both by religious and secular groups.

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