A movie.

Director: Chris Weitz

Runtime: 113 min
Language: English
Certification: Philippines:PG-13 / Switzerland:10 / Singapore:PG / Finland:K-11 / Canada:PG / Canada:G (Quebec) / Taiwan:PG-12 / South Korea:All / Switzerland:10 (canton of Vaud) / Malaysia:U / USA:PG-13 / UK:PG / Sweden:11 / Ireland:12A

The Golden Compass is the movie adaptation of a book by British author Philip Pullman. In the UK the book is titled Northern Lights. In the US, the title is The Golden Compass. It is the first part of a trilogy known collectively as His Dark Materials (HDM) in which the latter two books are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

This review covers the movie, as there are already plenty of reviews of the book here and here

Review in a sentence: The casting and most of the acting is first class and the adaptation is better than expected, but there are serious flaws.

At the time of writing, IMDB reported a rating of 6.7/10 from around 9000 votes and Rotten Tomatoes recorded a rating of 43% fresh, giving it officially a 'rotten' rating, from 162 reviews.

To begin, it is a kidult fantasy nominally aimed at children, but with appeal to a large slice of the adult population. The book is a complicated story with a wide cast of characters. It is set in a world that is quite similar to our own, but with important differences, which I do not propose to explore here. The range of locations varies from an Oxford College to a socialite's house in London and the drowned fields of a misty fenland, up to the far, frozen north.The characters range from the heroine, a girl on the cusp of puberty to a cruel, ruthless, yet fabulously glamorous woman. The fantasy element comes from the witches and the talking bears, a race of armoured mercenaries.

On the whole, adaptations from fantasy books to films have been fairly succesful. The Lord of the Rings trilogy stands out as the pinnacle of such adaptations, followed closely by the Jurassic Park franchise and various re-makes of the Narnia series. While Dune, Eragon and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising are at the other end of the spectrum.

Prior to the movie's release in December 2007, the signs were not good. On the positive side, production was being handled by New Line Cinema which had allowed Peter Jackson enough freedom to turn the Lord of the Rings trilogy into three massively successful movies. Another positive was the news that in 2003 Sir Tom Stoppard, celebrated UK playwright, wit and intellectual, had been commissioned to write the screenplay. On the other hand, Pullman himself remained distant from the production process. And then, New Line named Chris Weitz as director. Weitz was best known for his involvement with the cheap slapstick and innuendo of the American Pie series . As a further blow to fans, Stoppard was dropped when Weitz was brought in as director in 2004. Weitz famously likes to write his own screenplays.

In December of that year, after he revealed in an interview the necessity of toning down certain religions aspects of HDM in order to placate New Line and get the film to cinema, Weitz withdrew from the project, citing, "technical challenges."Source

In August 2005 a new director -- Anand Tucker -- was appointed, but in May 2006 he suddenly departed from the project due to reported "differences in creative opinion". Weitz returned and then remained with the project until the end.source

As production progressed, Pullman became more involved. In an interview published a few weeks before the movie came out, he said "I’ve been involved with the film, not officially, I’m not a producer, but they consulted me all the way through, asked my opinions, asked my advice. I’ve been writting some of the scenes, so I had quite a lot to do with it."source. In the same interview, he said, "When I first sold the films rights 10 years ago, the one just I wanted from the beginning was Nicole Kidman to play Mrs. Coulter. She’s perfect, she‘s magnificent. I can’t tell you how good she is. She’s beautiful of course, but she’s also a wonderful actor."

Movies are, of course, different from books. And this movie is certainly different from the book upon which is it based.

Let us start with the positives. The cast and the acting are almost universally praised. Few could disagree with Pullman that Nicole Kidman is perfect as Mrs Coulter. She really is fabulous as the glamorous socialite who is ruthless enough to kidnap children and cruel enough to perform unspeakable experiments on them in a remote research establishment. Kidman brings menace and confidence to the role, as well as wonderful style and costumes.

Another unqualified success is the 13-year old Dakota Blue Richards who plays young Lyra Belacqua. Richards loves the HDM books and only turned up to a casting session on a whim. However, her lack of previous acting experience means she is free to play a wild, untamed, passionate child who has a hint of savagery about her. The camera loves her face and in the many close-ups her expressions vary from innocent and childlike to something approaching a grown, mature woman. It is quite extraordinary to compare her performance with that of other child-actors to whom we are introduced through their starring roles in the fantasy genre. She beats all of them easily. Where they begin their careers as wooden and forced, Richards is natural and spirited. Whether those attributes will transfer to other roles remains to be seen, but she really fits the character of Lyra like the proverbial glove.

Daniel Craig is good as Lord Asriel. Both character and actor are physical, charismatic men. But Craig's post Casino Royale fan base might be a little disappointed by his limited screen time.

The other actors and actresses, too are well-chosen and fit their parts well. Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby and Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala, head of the witch clan, deserve special mention. Green comes cross as a hard-edged warrior who uses her sexuality as well as her magical abilities as integral aspects of her arsenal. Elliot is light relief but he manages to inject a note of homespun wisdom that suits the character well.

Another positive are the costumes and scenery. As you might expect from the people who brought us the beautifully detailed costumes in Lord of the Rings, the outfits are well suited to the various characters. The locations are well chosen and the cinematography is, at its best, just as breathtaking as the huge vistas found in the earlier trilogy

The special effects are yet another positive. Computer graphics have developed since the LOTR movies and this project uses them well, without allowing the effects to drive the storyline too much. I do have to take issue with the decision to zoom in towards the dust within the golden compass of the title whever Lyra consults the truth-teller, but otherwise the use of CG was judicious.

But there are some drawbacks.

Most heinous of these is the ending. I guess there were reasons for ignoring the critical scene at the end of the book. In that scene the book shows us that Asriel can be just as cruel and ruthless as Mrs Coulter and we see Lyra allow herself to betray one of her dearest friends. It is far from a happy ending. The movie completely ignores this part of the book. I guess the director wanted to have a clean ending just in case the second movie is not made.

This deliberate and brutal edit leaves us with a movie which tells a different story from the story in the book. It is unfortunate in the extreme, at least to this reviewer.

It is inevitable in a book as complicated and as long as this one that the movie version leaves some chunks out and modifies the time line a little. In most cases, these cuts were justified, but the transition from the time Ma Costa rescues Lyra from the Gobblers to the ship travelling north was too rushed. In the books there was a whole exposition of the culture of the Gyptian people. The movie did show Lyra learning what the alethiometer (Golden Compass) is supposed to do and how to work it, but there is none of the faltering first steps in interpretation, nor do we see Lyra struggling to master the device. We also miss out on the main Gyptian council where each family agrees to contribute time, resources and money to help Lyra on her way to the arctic. All of this significantly underplays the loyalty and friendship of the Gyptians. In the scheme of things, I guess this is a quibble, but for me it is a big quibble.

This was the biggest of the unexplained jumps in the time line, but there were others. Having read the books, I found these jumps irritating, but not fatal to the movie.

People who had not previously read the books were able to follow the storyline, but I strongly suspect they did not get many of the nuances of the book. The palace of the armoured bears suffered badly from this.

Panserbjørn, or armoured bears are supposed to be entirely honorable, always fulfilling promises and unable to tell a lie or falsehood. The corruption of the usurper Iofur Rakinson (mysteriously re-named Ragnar Sturlusson in the movie) is not explained, nor is there any sense as Lyra visits the palace, that it is a stinking, rotten mess of entrails, bones and other carrion.

In one case, where the bears are fighting, the hero, Iorek Byrnison pretends that his foreleg is injured, and allows Ragnar to become overconfident and open himself to a surprise -- and fatal -- attack from Iorek. The movie does not make it clear that this is a ploy by Iorek and some of my movie-goer friends thought his rapid recovery was a continuity error.

Although these are details, they are important details and shows that the makers of the movie either failed to appreciate the story, or perhaps that they deliberately changed the story in order to make the movie more acceptable to a mass-market audience.

And here we arrive at one of the biggest criticisms of the movie in relation to its source material.

The books are militantly anti-Christianity. The final book shows the first Angel or "Authority" or "God" dying after he is captured and trapped inside a glass box by a scheming, ambitious fellow-angel. That schemer -- the Metatron -- is killed by being dragged down into the abyss. The totalitarian government of the first book is named the Magisterium -- a name used by the real-world Catholic Church to mean their own teaching programme. The Magisterium is regularly referred to by its alternate name, the Church. And that insititution is shown as corrupt in moral, spiritual ethical and financial senses.

Pullman has an agenda. He is on record as saying he would like to see an end to Christianity. The books portray a government that is corrupt, power-hungry, immoral, scheming, cruel and quite clearly meant to reflect the Catholic Church in our own world. In the second book, set partly in our own world, Pullman introduces a character called Mary Malone, who is a former Nun in the Catholic Church. She has turned to science. And she reveals terrible truths about the corruption of the church, meant to undermine belief in Cathlolicism in our own real world and to undermine the Magisterium introduced up in the first book.

In the current political and religious climate of the United States, it would be commercial suicide to present these views in a mass-market movie. Whether we regret that fact or rejoice in it, there is no doubt that it is a fact of modern life.

So a decision was made somewhere along the line to excise that aspect of the storyline.

In this, the first book of the series, the excision is not fatal to the story. It will take spectacular skill on the part of a director to remove that aspect of the story from the second book, let alone the third.

But returning to this movie, we have a great adventure story told by some wonderful actors who play their roles to the full. Sometimes there are jarring cuts. Sometimes whole chapters of story development are left out. But in the end I freely admit I enjoyed it. By the end I had suspended my disbelief and identified with the characters. My friends who came along also enjoyed it, despite not having read the book.

It's not a great movie. It's certainly not Lord of the Rings, but it's a better adaptation than I was expecting. Anyone who watches will get a feel for the scope and power of the books, even if they don't get the whole story. There's no reason for the Christian faithful to boycott the movie, virtually all traces of the anti-religion agenda have been excised and what is left is an enchanting story about loyalty, friendship and a genuine adventure up in the Frozen north. The characters are believable and there's no sentimentality. There's a lot of action and some truly great special effects.

Overall I'll give it 6.5 out of 10. Not bad, could have been much better, but still good entertainment.

* Nicole Kidman ... Marisa Coulter
* Daniel Craig ... Lord Asriel
* Dakota Blue Richards ... Lyra Belacqua
* Ben Walker ... Roger
* Freddie Highmore ... Pantalaimon (voice)
* Ian McKellen ... Iorek Byrnison (voice)
* Eva Green ... Serafina Pekkala
* Jim Carter ... John Faa
* Tom Courtenay ... Farder Coram
* Ian McShane ... Ragnar Sturlusson (voice)
* Sam Elliott ... Lee Scoresby
* Christopher Lee ... First High Councilor
* Kristin Scott Thomas ... Stelmaria (voice)
* Edward de Souza ... Second High Councilor
* Kathy Bates ... Hester (voice)

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