2007 // USA - UK // Chris Weitz // December 9, 2007 // Theatrical Print
C - I'm hesitant to describe The Golden Compass as "epic fantasy," given that the film clocks in at under two hours. This adaptation of the first novel in Philip Pullman's engrossing His Dark Materials trilogy has a structural breeziness that does not complement the dense story it is striving to tell. It hits the right notes for an adolescent fantasy, but the methodical haste it insists upon—and the occasionally silly dialogue from writer and director Chris Weitz—does the rich source material a disservice. It's still a pleasurable arctic romp, with some rare scenes of dramatic complexity from its captivating female leads. Nonetheless, as someone who adored Pullman's novel, I find it tempting and all too easy to envision a more substantial adaptation, perhaps one where the filmmakers weren't so dispassionately determined to get their franchise off and running.
The Golden Compass takes place in a sort of fantasy steampunk parallel universe, where Jules Verne wonders and magical creatures exist side-by-side. Human souls have a physical reality in this world, taking the form of talking animal companions called daemons, one for each living person. One of the subtle pleasures of the film is observing the daemons as they perch on and slink around their masters. It is a credit to The Golden Compass' production design that Pullman's world is so faithfully recreated, often exactly as I had imagined it. The scenes of greater London are a bit unconvincing, like paint-by-numbers landscapes, but the arctic locales—the trading port of Trollesund, the polar bear stronghold Svalbard, and the evil laboratory Bolvangar—possess vitality and an unearthly eeriness. Pullman's world is impressively realized, but Weitz unfortunately engages in gee-whiz gaping at the sweep of it all, the sort of sin that is expected of George Lucas, and also of Peter Jackson in his more indulgent moments.
Dakota Blue Richards, one of the most charismatic young actors I've seen in a Hollywood film in some time, plays the film's heroine, Lyra Belacqua. An unapologetic liar and troublemaker, Lyra possesses fierce streaks of loyalty and courage, as well as a sixth sense for adult twaddle. She's a memorable and instantly likable child protagonist, and it is a credit to Richards' portrayal that this shines through the computer gimmickry that surrounds her. The other scene-stealer is Nicole Kidman as the glamorous, vicious Mrs. Coulter, a woman that both attracts and repulses Lyra. Despite a couple of eye-rolling lines, Kidman pulls off the tricky character marvelously, stitching together equal parts Gilded Age Bond villain and Joan Crawford by way of Faye Dunaway.
The rest of the cast looks good decked out in sumptuous, vaguely Victorian fantasy garb, but they don't have much to do beyond rushed exposition that ranges from the necessary to the preposterous. Sam Elliott is precisely the man I envisioned as Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby when reading the novel, and he's obviously having fun with the role. Yet Scoresby seems included mainly for the sake of color, and the antihero texture of his character is barely touched upon. As Lyra's explorer uncle Asriel, Daniel Craig is provided with an essentially pointless action sequence before he disappears from the film entirely. Asriel is a presence that hovers over Lyra's journey in the novel, and most of his development takes place offscreen. It seems wasteful and misguided to cast an actor of steely humanity like Craig in such a phantom role. Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala is a pleasing sight, as are a host of British character actors including Derek Jacobi and an obligatory Christopher Lee, but everyone other than Richards and Kidman seems to be doing a full dress rehearsal of an abridged script.
The harried feel to The Golden Compass is at the expense of the novel's peculiar drama. Pullman lets his imaginary setting unfurl at a languid pace, permitting the reader to puzzle out the crucial details of Lyra's world. Pullman's diligence in building a convincing reality makes for some nail-biting tension in scenes that have no corollary in our world—such as when one character seizes Lyra's daemon. The film rarely achieves this sort of challenging feat, and then only due to some heavy lifting from the actors.
If my assessment of The Golden Compass seems lukewarm, it is partly because the bar has been set relatively high within recent memory. In no small part due to New Line's relentless promotion, The Golden Compass invites comparisons to other more successful epic fantasy franchises, particularly The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean. For me, the appeal of these trilogies lies not just in their visceral thrills, but also in the manner in which the filmmakers realize the underlying mythos. Pirates in particular makes for an instructive contrast, for while the pace of the Disney films is as relentless as that in The Golden Compass, their speed serves to exhilarate and tickle. Yet Pirates is anything but truncated—the entire trilogy runs 461 minutes—and every moment brims with details that suggest the density of its droll, seventeenth century cartoon reality. (The intricacy of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's script and the elaborate mythology it has spawned is one of the series' underappreciated merits.) To its detriment, The Golden Compass seems to be striving for the opposite: an uninspired, economic adaptation of a vivid, meticulous source.
Nonetheless, The Golden Compass is serviceable Hollywood fare, and better than most adventure films aimed at the preteen set. Its polished production of Pullman's world will be sufficient to satisfy many fans of the novel. Try as he might, Weitz can't drain the inherent appeal from Lyra, from the evocative production design, or from the story's subversive themes. For these reasons alone, The Golden Compass is worthwhile entertainment. Yet as a fan of the novel, and as a filmgoer who has witnessed far more gratifying fantasy spectacles even in the past five years, I suspect that it could have been something more successful. Good starting points might have been a three-hour running time and a director whose understanding of the novel penetrates beyond surface details.