Posted at 11:54 AM on December 6, 2007
by Euan Kerr
"The Golden Compass" (Images courtesy New Line Cinema)
An unusual sensation assailed me as I left the dream palace the other night having viewed "The Golden Compass" - a deep feeling of satisfaction.
After months- no years - of being disappointed, and occasionally upset by film adaptations of favorite books, watching the first part of Philip Pullman's epic story the "His Dark Materials" trilogy spill across the screen delighted, entertained, and as is appropriate for this series, challenged a little.
Director Chris Weitz plunges us into an alternate universe where every person has a daemon, a physical manifestation of a person's soul in the shape of an animal. We meet Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan living in one of the colleges in Oxford with her daemon Pantalaimon. As with the daemons of all children Pantalaimon is a shapeshifter, having not yet stuck on one animal form.
Lyra's tough, courageous and smart, and when her friend Roger (Ben Walker) is kidnapped by the mysterious Gobblers, Lyra gets caught up in a political struggle between her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig,) a daring and ruthless adventurer and the Magisterium, the powerful theocracy which runs the country. Along the way Lyra travels in airships, and learns to use the mysterious alethiometer which can answer questions for people who know how to ask correctly. She meet witches, armored polar bears, exotic Gypitian people, and has a host of adventures as she tries to find and rescue Roger.
It's a dark story, and Tom Stoppard's script races along at breakneck speed. It hints at some of the larger themes of Pullman's books, but rightly doesn't allow itself to get bogged down.
Some people have claimed the film has an anti-Catholic bias in its depiction of of the Magisterium. Everyone has their own interpretation of course, but while Pullman has made no secret of his humanist leanings, this film's religious criticism is non-denominational.
(Interestingly in what is apparently a bow to the Hollywood love of a happy ending, the film wraps up before what is the climactic scene in the book, which is a lot less upbeat than what audiences will see. If and when the next film in the series is made, the opening is going to be a major bummer.)
While the special effects are very well done, what makes this movie a must-see is the string of top-flight actors who lend their talents to the telling of the tale. The 12 year old Richards is exceptional, but she is backed by such luminaries as Nicole Kidman as the sensuously evil Mrs Coulter, and Sam Elliot as Texas airman Lee Scoresby.
There is also a host of talent in the bit parts. Tom Courtney makes an appearance, as does Christopher Lee, Derek Jacobi and Simon McBurney.
"The Golden Compass" is a film worth seeing, and in a perfect world will lead to many more people reading the "His Dark Materials" books.