So, here we go then – yet another fantasy film franchise adapted from some popular children’s books, released just in time for the festive season (although keenly alert readers will note my reluctance to join the Christmas rush and the concurrent lateness of this review). Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a good deal more complex and intricate than the Harry Potter stories, and its carefully constructed parallel worlds ought to make for a sumptuous visual feast.
Yet watching ‘The Golden Compass’, it’s hard to escape the notion that the National Theatre’s fine theatrical adaptations achieved a lot more in creating a sense of spectacle and awe. Unfortunately, Chris Weitz’s film slavishly follows the precedent set by Peter Jackson’s ghastly Lord of the Rings trilogy for ugly CGI effects, which merely render most of the locations and settings completely unreal and implausible. The airships and cityscapes look particularly appalling and even when the film’s final third transports the action to the icy North, it’s nearly impossible to feel the chill and isolation that such an atmosphere should conjure in the imagination. That Weitz also follows Jackson’s tendency to deploy an overblown, badly written score doesn’t help – no doubt this one will follow Howard Shore’s awful music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy in winning many a poorly judged award.
Luckily, Weitz does not follow Jackson’s preponderance for icky dialogue and forced sentiment – much of the script for ‘The Golden Compass’ is surprisingly juicy. There are some fine performances – Dakota Blue Richards convincingly portraying Lyra’s natural intelligence, inquisitiveness and rebellious streak. She has several moments of real charm and charisma. Daniel Craig is stately and commanding as Lord Asriel, even if his part is a little underwritten here (much of the book’s build-up in Jordan College, Oxford is carefully pruned). Mercifully, this is one film that Nicole Kidman does not destroy, her icy elegance remarkably appropriate to the part of Mrs. Coulter, who is both sinister and tempting. Eva Green does not have to do much other than look suitably alluring as the ageless witch Serafina Pekkala – but my goodness that is something this woman could do whilst sleepwalking.
Much ludicrous furore has been caused by this film’s possible attack on the Catholic Church. In fairness, the role of the Magisterium as dictatorial authority attempting to withhold truth has possibly been amplified here, and the film is certainly less subtle than the book in this regard. In fact, the scenes with the great elder statesmen of British film and theatre (Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee) emphasising their desire to suppress the truth about Lord Asriel’s cosmic dust are clunky in the extreme, and perhaps belong in a different movie (The Da Vinci Code perhaps?). Pullman denies that the Magisterium was ever meant to be synonymous with Catholicism though, and it is, after all merely a good yarn. It’s also a story that sets out to defend free will, as much a Christian concept as anyone else’s. One needn’t view such a story as intrinsically anti-theist.
The film is perhaps a little overlong, particularly as much of the action seems to be explained only casually (I may well have been somewhat confused as to the constantly shifting purpose of Lyra’s expedition had I not read the book). It also occasionally lacked a sense of drama – I did not really feel the tension and fear during the poisoning attempt on Lord Asriel, whilst the final battle sequence was more comically grandiose than apocalyptic or terrifying. Some of the supporting characters are not all that well developed (particularly the gyptian child Billy Costa), so it’s hard to feel for them as much as we should when they suffer at the cruel hands of the General Oblation Board.
There are areas where the film succeeds in crafting a sense of the fantastic. Lyra’s calm acceptance of her immediate ease in reading her alethiometer makes her a convincing prophetic child, and there is a sense of preciousness and pricelessness surrounding the instrument itself. The single combat duel between the usurped Iorek Byrnison and the King of the Ice Bears (voiced by Ians McKellan and McShane respectively) was superb though – and one of the rare moments when the computer animation produced something exciting and electrifying. The animation also succeeds in bringing the characters’ daemons (accompanying animal forms – children’s daemons can change forms, those of adults have settled) to spirited life. Particularly superb is the nasty conflict between Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon and the appropriately nasty monkey that accompanies Mrs. Coulter.
It looks likely that the trilogy will be completed with two further films, and this was certainly enjoyable enough to make them bankable. A little more drama and a little less artificial and expensive computer effects would be welcome next time but even agnostic non-physicists like me can be entertained and amused by a film about ‘particle metaphysics’.
Whilst prospects for this franchise look reasonably encouraging, that is a lot more than can be said for forthcoming fantasy films in general. The trailers highlighted three fantasy films seemingly aimed at children, all of which seemed to be about magic books. The idea factory appears to be running out of original ideas!