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The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

WHEN Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy first made its debut in 1995 with The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK), it quickly became a publishing sensation, unlocking a mystical world where witches ruled the northern skies, ice bears were the bravest of warriors, and where every human is joined with an animal spirit – or daemon – who is as close to them as their own heart.

The trilogy was widely acclaimed for its rich narrative and wonderful sense of adventure and won many awards, including the Whitbread Book of the Year (for part three, The Amber Spyglass), the first time the award had gone to a children’s novel.

However, it also attracted some controversy from both the Catholic Church and Catholic League, who accused Pullman of trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief through his depiction of the Magisterium group.

In film form, The Golden Compass has watered down the controversial elements and played up the fantasy, opting to keep things safe in a bid to attract as wide a family audience as possible. It also changes elements of the story and delivers an open ending that falls some way short of the novel’s concluding prose. Both decisions work against it.

That’s not to say that Chris Weitz’s film is a flop, merely an underwhelming experience that fails to capture the same sense of awe or emotional depth as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (to which it is certain to draw comparisons).

The story is as follows… When her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) embarks on a trip to the Arctic Circle to investigate a mysterious element known as “The Dust”, 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) suddenly finds herself at the centre of the ensuing adventure.

First, her best friend Roger goes missing and she vows to recover him, and then the mysterious Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) appears at Jordan College and enlists her for some important studies.

But Lyra is unaware that she has been drawn into a trap designed to discover the whereabouts of the Golden Compass, a mystical truth-telling device that has been entrusted to her by the Master of Jordan College (Jack Shepherd).

And once this becomes clear, she flees from Marisa and eventually enlists the help of an unlikely alliance – including a ferocious ice bear (Sir Ian McKellen) and a mysterious witch (Eva Green) – to fight back against the ruling Magisterium and possibly save humanity…

The Golden Compass certainly begins well and wastes little time in setting the various storylines into play but given its rich source material, the film lacks any real depth and tip-toes around the really big issues explored in the book.

On the plus side, Dakota Blue Richards provides a plucky presence as Lyra and seldom looks out of her depth, whether working with the effects or her esteemed co-stars, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in getting to know Pullman’s world (especially the role played by daemons).

A top-notch cast also brings extra weight to even the most inconsequential role, whether it’s Jack Shepherd as the Master of Jordan College, Christopher Lee in a blink-and-you’ll-miss cameo or Simon McBurney as a shadowy member of the Magisterium.

In the more prominent roles, Nicole Kidman brings a subtle menace to the role of Marisa Coulter and looks suitably luminous, Sam Elliott brings some typically hangdog charm to Texas airman Lee Scoresby, and Sir Ian McKellen adds a welcome familiarity to the voice of ice bear lorek Byrnison.

But the likes of Daniel Craig and Eva Green appear all too fleetingly and the latter part of proceedings could have benefited from more of their presence.

Visually, the film is also hit-and-miss. Some of the effects – including lorek’s tussle with bear-king Iofur Raknison – are impressive but others appear fairly shoddy (such as Lyra’s ride on the ice bear). And it’s also a little too sincere and could do with a little more lightness of touch.

But the biggest disappointment surrounds the filmmakers’ decision to re-arrange key plot points, avoid controversy and end the story prematurely, before several key moments in the book have taken place. It’s a move that’s sure to be lamented by fans of the novel and which smacks of commercialism rather than artistic integrity.

So, while younger viewers will doubtless lap it up, much like they did The Chronicles of Narnia a couple of years ago, older and more discerning viewers will definitely feel cheated. And given the feverish sense of anticipation surrounding the project, The Golden Compass can only be considered a missed opportunity.

Certificate: PG
Running time: 114mins
UK DVD release date: April 28, 2008