Friday, December 7, 2007

The Golden Compass

“That is heresy!”
“That is the truth.”

The story centers around Lyla Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) a young girl with a great destiny, in a parallel world ruled by a theocracy known as the Magisterium. In this world a person’s soul exists outside their body in the form of an animal who can talk and think. Children’s souls, or Daemons as they are called, are able to change shape until the beginning of adolescence where their Deamon chooses a permanent shape. The reasons for this are a substance known as Dust, but we’ll learn more about that later.

Lyra leaves the comfort of Jordan College with the lovely but secretive Ms. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). With the help of an Alethiometer, a small golden compass which can tell the truth of the future and the past, Lyla learns much about herself, Ms. Coulter, her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) and others, and begins an adventure over the seas and through the Arctic with Gyptians, witches, and armored polar bears.

Although quite pretty and filled with talking polar bears, Daemons and witches, the story doesn’t always feel as magical as it should. There are several good special effects including the Daemons themselves changing shape, talking, and reacting emotionally to various stimuli. I also quite enjoyed the different looking technology of the world. And the look of the witches, especially Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), flying through the air and fighting in battle is well done. Throw in a huge polar bear fight, the horror of intercision, and some bloody battles and you’ve got the basis for a fun ride.

In a film centered around a child the casting becomes hugely important. Luckily for us Dakota Blue Richards does a great job as Lyra capturing her rambunctiousness and independent attitude. Ben Walker and Charlie Rowe also have some nice moments as Lyra’s friends from Jordan College. Hopefully the casting of Will in the sequel will be as good.

There are more than a handful of characters introduced over the course of the film, and more to come in the next one. Because of this some of the nuance has been cut away or simply lost in this trimmed down film version. We don’t learn as much about the Gyptains or the Polar Bears as we do in the books. One of my favorite scenes from the books, involving the discussion of Lyra and Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen) about the differences between humans and bears and why you can fool one but not the other, has been removed completely.

Religious Note - Some are going to object to the theocracy of the Magisterium as casting the church or organized religion as the villains of the piece, but it is a fantasy world where polar bears talk and people’s souls are outside their body changing shape and talking to people! Simply put - it’s fantasy, deal with it. And for those who don’t believe that a church run state can take it’s power too far and act in ways that can only be described as evil, I’d suggest you take a short look through history, starting with The Inquisition. Now back to the review…

Although the film works in many ways there are some problems. The first is the film’s lack of focus and flow early on. We jump through different scenes all meant to introduce the characters and the world, but they are only loosely and hastily cut together in a way that seems more like greatest hits from the book than a film version of the full story.

Also troubling is how long the film takes to let us in on the secrets of the world and the point of the story. In a novel you can tease the reader, but in a film (especially one which has to remove much of the excess scenes and plot to make its under two-hour running time) you need to explain such a dramatically different world a little better. Those who haven’t read the book may wonder just what Dust is and why it’s so important. Stay patient, the explanation is coming, though you’ll have to wait about 100 minutes to get to it.

I would recommend reading the books, at least the first one, before seeing this film, or taking someone with you who can answer your questions. At the screening I attended those who hadn’t had experience going in with Philip Pullman‘s world seemed lost and bewildered for most of the film. And much like The Two Towers those who have read the book may be upset by the chosen ending of the film which leaves a large portion of the first novel untold. Is it a great adaptation? No, not really, but it’s passable, and likely the only one we’re ever going to get.

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