Thursday, April 17, 2008

All that Glitters: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass. 2007. Dir. Chris Weitz. Perf. Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellan, Eva Green, Sam Elliot. Based on the novel by Philip Pullman.

The Golden Compass is a magnificently directed film about a young girl named Lyra (Richards), raised at Oxford University in an alternate universe, who finds herself trying to unravel several dark plots, one of which is the mysterious disappearance and suspected abuse of certain small children in her hometown, and the other or which is the ominous mystery of the censorship impressed upon her fellow men by the Magisterium, the ruling body of Lyra's world. In this world, humans are accompanied by daemons, or external souls, who take on the shapes of animals to reflect their humans' natures and figure more as best friends than as souls; Lyra's daemon is Pantalaimon, who has not yet chosen a shape as Lyra's character is still developing.

When Lyra leaves her Oxford to see the North, she is taken by Mrs. Coulter (Kidman), who swiftly turns out to have been in cahoots with the evil Magisterium; Lyra flees her would-be benefactor and is rescued by a band of Gyptians, among whom is the mother of Lyra's friend Billy, who has gone missing. As she travels North to save Billy and her best friend Roger, Lyra meets a witch who gives her directions, a space cowboy who watches her with distinct care, and an armored bear who swears to help her on her quest. The end of the film is chilling, and leads pleasantly into the future sequel.

Dakota Blue Richards is as strong a Lyra as Nicole Kidman is a weak Mrs. Coulter. Richards' wide-eyed innocence--a strong theme in the books--is masked by a precocious rudeness; Lyra, unlike so many other pampered child heroines, is a full-rounded character, ultimately engaging but not afraid to be occasionally unlikeable. Mrs. Coulter, on the other hand, emerges as a stock villain, who lacks any of the depth of character found in the novels and seems chilling from her first entrance, at which point we are presumably supposed to like, or at least trust, her. Kidman in the past has proved herself capable of any role, but this is either poorly acted or poorly directed.

One of the defining characters in the film is Lyra's sworn bear, Iorek Byrnison, voiced by the indomitable Ian McKellan. From his first entry as a slovenly drunk, to moments when Lyra curls up on his shoulder to go to sleep, to the climactic battle with his arch-enemy, Byrnison is a carefully defined and ultimately loveable bear. Lee Scoresby, Lyra's cowboy, is played by Sam Elliot; his character receives a little less screen time and makes the sad mistake, in the face of so many other well-rounded characters, of having a wholly pleasant and endearing character with no room for vices.

As a film, The Golden Compass is first-rate; the strong characters are complemented by exquisite scenery, some of the best-developed animated characters in film to date, an astonishing use of color, and a haunting score. As an adaptation of a book, it has left the political and religious domains on which its source has founded and, consequently, has a slightly weaker philosophy. As with an adaptation, of course, the film also excises certain scenes from the book; ultimately, although an aid reader will regret them, the cuts turn a complex story into the simple tale of a determined girl. Fortunately Pullman's cast is strong enough to make up for most of this deficit; Scoresby and Byrnison are memorable without their subplots, and focusing the attention on Lyra only highlights the tremendous performance Richards gives.

One of the best-directed films I have ever seen.

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