Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.13.07


Compass Points
Hurrying through a magical world

THE GOLDEN COMPASS: Written and directed by Chris Weitz. Based on the novel by Philip Pullman. Cinematography, Henry Braham. Production design, Dennis Gassner. Music, Alexandre Desplat. Starring Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, Daniel Craig, Eva Green and the voices of Ian McKellen, Ian McShane and Freddie Highmore. New Line Cinema, 2007. PG-13. 113 minutes.

It gives me not even the tiniest spark of pleasure to have to report that other critics were, for the most part, right about director Chris Weitz’ adaptation of Philip Pullman’s magical book, the first of a trilogy that explores the nature of destiny and the power of connection. The film, which I’ve been anxiously excited about for years, is a bit of a mess — a beautiful mess, at least, but an untidy tangle of the ideas of Pullman as interpreted by Weitz, set to an overwhelming score and then lined up and knocked over scene by scene like fantastical dominos.

Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) and Iorek (the voice of Ian McKellen) look to the skies in The Golden Compass

It’s always difficult to see an adaptation of a beloved book without counting the ways in which the film differs, but with The Golden Compass, the problem isn’t really the changes, illogical as some of them seem. It’s that the film hops, skips and jumps through the story, failing to connect one set piece of a scene to the next, its characters repeatedly making unlikely leaps of intuition in order to move the plot along. And it moves along at quite a clip, in a hurry to get from Jordan College, where 12-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua (a perfect, spunky Dakota Blue Richards) lives, to the snowy fields of the north, where ice bears battle and the Gobblers, a mysterious group of child-stealers backed by the world’s ruling body, the Magisterium, do their horrible work.

In Lyra’s young hands rests the fate of worlds. That fate involves Dust, a mysterious particle feared and sought by the adults around her, including her gruff uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and the devious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, slithering about in icy gold and white). Dust, Lyra guesses, has something to do with why people’s daemons — exterior manifestations of the soul that take the shape of animal companions — change forms when people are children, but settle on one form when they grow up. Dust also has something to do with the alethiometer, the compass-like device of the title, which is given to Lyra to understand and protect as she ventures north, in search of her missing friend Roger (Ben Walker) and of Asriel, who’s searching out Dust in the Arctic.

One of the filmmakers’ best decisions was to let us see, through shifting, glowing Dust, what Lyra sees when she reads the alethiometer. But a poor decision was to let it appear just a pretty, handy gizmo, easily understood, and to fail to flesh out characters who appear just pretty, interesting variations on fantasy tropes. We’ve got witches, ethereal and earthy at once; cowboys, in the form of aeronaut Lee Scoresby (casting Sam Elliott in this role was a bit of brilliance); scholars; gyptians, with eyeliner and tattoos; adventurers; and, of course, talking animals, though those — both daemons and armored bears — are lovingly created and often seamlessly integrated into this fantastical yet familiar world.

There are reasons to see this film even though it lacks the wonder and intelligence of its source material. The perfect, spine-tingling image of Lyra riding the armored bear Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen) is worth the price of admission, and the two battles are unforgettable: one because it’s between two armored bears, the other because while it’s as bloodless as a battle in Narnia, it’s not without effect: When people are killed, their daemons go out in a golden swirl of Dust. It’s a striking, original way to present the horrors of violence. For these reasons and one other, I want to tell you to go see The Golden Compass despite its failings. See, I still want them to make the next movie, and the third. I want Weitz, who was clearly overwhelmed by the scope of this film, to hand over The Subtle Knife, book two, to someone who can handle it, so that it might appear on screen with more weight and heart. The Golden Compass‘ misleadingly happy ending simply can’t be the last bit of Lyra’s story we see.