The Golden Compass
Chris Weitz (Novel “Northern Lights” by Philip Pullman)
Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Eva Green, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Ian McShane, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates
PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence)
In a world where the government has the power to disenfranchise those who oppose them, a little girl must summon her courage and engage in a battle for the lives of all those whom she loves.
The Golden Compass marks the auspicious debut of child actress Dakota Blue Richards who plays Lyra Belacqua, the daughter of a powerful government official who seeks to bring down The Magisterium, the ruling government of their world. Hoping to get her hands on the Lyra’s magic alethiometer, or golden compass, is the vile, slinky Magisterium goon Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman).
The crux of the story surrounds the power to separate children from their Daemons, magical creatures that are a physical representation of the soul. When a Daemon is destroyed, so is the master and vice versa. In this way, the Magisterium can diminish the power of their enemies by eliminating the powerful foe that is an adult Daemon.
Richards is a marvelous screen presence. Absent is the superficial precociousness that can often emerge in the performances of young actors. She fits naturally and credibly into the role. Even when she’s opposite some of the film’s better performers, she manages to steal the spotlight.
Kidman delivers a solid performance, though not a really spectacular one. She’s never attempted villainy before. Here, she revels in her wickedness and suggests that perhaps she could do even better with this type of role in the future.
As Lyra’s father Lord Asriel, Daniel Craig delivers a charming performance, but one that is all too brief. Most everyone else of note appears in cameos or provides excellent voice casting for the various fantasy creatures. Sam Elliott’s stoic tone makes his friendly cowboy Lee Scoresby some punch, while Kathy Bates ably voices his Daemon Hester. Freddie Highmore’s falsely expressive face is hidden behind a surprisingly effective vocal performance as Lyra’s Daemon Pantalaimon.
Ian McKellen, as always, grants us his eloquence as the polar bear Iorek Byrnison, and his big screen opponent Ragnar Sturlusson is given great ferocity by Deadwood star Ian McShane.
Chris Weitz hasn’t yet emerged as a major directing talent, although About a Boy is a good start. The Golden Compass suffers mostly in that Weitz is sometimes more interested in the spectacle than the story. He doesn’t create any spectacular moments and his selection of music is horrid. Neither the ill-fitting score by Alexander Desplat or the atrocious closing-credits song “Lyra” add anything to the film and, more often than not, they are entirely distracting.
The film does create a magical world with spectacular visual effects. The Daemons vary from cute to terrifying and are terrifically expressive. Would that the film weren’t plagued by religious persecution, it might have been a staggering success.
Despite being based on the first novel in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the film works hard to avoid any direct correlation to the Catholic Church. In the novels, the Magesterium is the government arm of a Church and they are attempting to rip the sin out of children. Every obvious anti-organized religion sentiment in the written word is subdued in the movie so that it can be more palatable to general audiences. Although the attempt was made, there are some very clear comparisons to the Church in it, but children are unlikely to pick up on them. Adults, however, may be able to recognize the controversy swirling around the film and the source material as a direct corollary to those events depicted in the film.
The Golden Compass is an immensely enjoyable film. There are aspects that would easily appeal to children, but there are still more that would appeal to reasoning, open-minded viewers as well.
January 31, 2008