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The Golden Compass

December 6, 2007

Inappropriate as the description might seem, the much-trumpeted The Golden Compass may very easily be this year’s cinematic Curate’s egg.

Philip Pullman’s marvellous His Dark Materials arrives on the screen looking and feeling and sounding absolutely wonderful. The smart AU setting seeps into your subconscious in the same piecemeal way as it did in the books; a sudden new image here, a shiny bizarre backdrop there, each otherworldly concept crafted with infinite care.

Only it would, if it were allowed the space and time to develop.

At a smidge over two hours, Compass rattles along at a never-flagging pace, but within a minute of the start you wish you were watching the extended DVD cut (please, Authority, let there eventually be one), for it is saddled with the lamest, most rushed opening imaginable, an introduction that could quite happily be labelled “previously…on His Dark Materials“. Over title credits that carry the same ambience and sensation as The Fellowship of the Ring, we are told, Cate Blanchett-style, that it all begins with the forging of the Great Rings, three given to the Elves- , no, sorry, not really, but with New Line (the same production company as LotR) pulling the strings it damn well recalls that earlier film to mind almost immediately. Second, the voice-over that we do hear explains too speedily the many-universes concept, daemons, the ensuing quest, so that the whole enjoyably baffling discovery process of the novel is scuppered. Finally – and seriously, this really is all within the first minute – our first encounter is not with ‘Lyra and her daemon’ moving through the darkening hall, but Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), wandering up to centre screen, with his snow leopard, Stelmaria, who looks up and speaks to him and asks if they will be meeting ‘the girl’. Asriel smiles at us and says almost conversationally, ‘oh, I should think so.’

This seems a strange point at which to start flagging problems, and I assure you I’m not being precious about the text (I think that screenwriters and adaptors should be allowed to whittle away at anything they think may free the story for visual effect and style) but it is such an immediate betrayal of the novel and its intentions and atmosphere that it needs to be addressed. Within the pages of the book, until we discover the higher purposes of Asriel’s project, and after really, he seems to us to be a brittle, supremely intelligent, aloof man; dark, mysterious, powerful and challenging. Lyra, who we should meet first, is our, ahem, compass, if you like, it’s through her that we attach ourselves, daemon-like, before we meet anyone else, and its through her that we discover the world. This is crucial, and here it’s fluffed.

Five or six minutes later, there she is, moving through the darkening hall, then, eavesdropping, discovering Asriel’s project proposal before his College’s committee. The grand scheme to go North to discover the imagined parallel worlds is unveiled, the setting up of Asriel against the all-ruling all-controlling Magisterium slips into place, the creepy Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman looking threateningly glamorous, if that’s possible) begins to exert a malign influence over Lyra, and all is just as it should be.

Just as it should be. Maddeningly, that voice-over intro provides information that we find out for ourselves anyway, as the movie progresses, so why hold our hands so patronisingly?

Unfortunately, this sets the tone for certain junctures and after long periods where you’re in clover with what’s in front of you, you’ll suddenly get speedy set-ups (Lyra escaping into the London underworld after just a few hundred yards), followed by irritatingly bland shortcuts in the dialogue where people speak unnaturally, or tell each other stuff they already know. When she’s rescued by her allies the Gyptians, her good friend Billy’s Mom, Ma Costa, tells her “we’re off to meet John Faa, King of the Gyptians”. Oof! Clunky dollops of exposition pop up throughout, derailing much of the good work on show. Now, Pullman isn’t averse to grand strokes of the pen himself, and checking through the text last night I could find similarly bold statements, but he has context to play with, you’ve already seen Lyra playing with the Gyptian kids for several pages and worked out just how happy she feels in their company. When Ma and her gang recue her from Mrs Coulter’s henchman – who, incidentally, don’t really seem to deserve the heavy-handed fate dealt them – you sit there thinking, ‘sorry, and you people are who, exactly?’ The connection with the brief scene of kids’ games at the start of the film isn’t strong enough to see you nodding happily, smugly putting the pieces together. It’s jarring.

Possibly the worst offences relate to the witches who, rather than casting a sinister spell with their peculiar splendour, are rushed to the point where, apropos of nothing it seems, dropping down on to the deck of the Gyptian ship heading North, Lyra says to Serafina (Eva Green, doing her best, and looking amazing), “who are you?” “I’m a witch,” comes the reply.

The magic, like the boards of the ship, creaks noisily…

The Gyptian boat heads North to Trollesund. There’s the town, on the horizon, looking spectacularly realised. For about seven seconds, and then all of a sudden we’re walking down the gangplank onto the quay. What about the lingering establishing shot? The pulling in? The sensation of dry land after a tortuous journey? No, bish bash bosh, here we are. More haste and less speed isn’t a lesson learned here.

Fortunately, it is at this point that the film grabs itself some gravitas by introducing us to Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) and the great polar bear, Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Sir Ian McKellan). Elliott is a great actor, a man so far out of his time you can see why, when he unravels that immense laconic drawl, he stars in Westerns. He should have been a gunslinger or a town sheriff or something. His Scoresby is older than I’d ever imagined the character, but now I shall just see him as the definition of what’s on the page. His mannerisms are perfect and wonderfully casually heroic. McKellan’s ice bear is well-matched to Lyra’s sense of let’s-get-this-sorted and Scoresby’s easy courage. He also looks astonishing, just astonishing. It’s here that the film suddenly wakes up from the troubles it’s been encountering and decides to amaze and seduce you. Iorek, Lee and Lyra make a terrific trio and for a long time you sink back into your chair, relieved to be carried along by something that is genuinely great.

In the frozen North, our party of Gyptians, Lyra, Lee and the bear, come up against the forces of the Magisterium (remember them?) who – the witches tell them – have created a citadel where a team of scientists are gathered. On their way there, Lyra encounters her friend Billy Costa, hiding in a barn, almost a ghost because his daemon has been cut away from him. This is a conflation of the scene in the book where the child is Tony Makarios. The change of character, I think, is made because up until this point you haven’t really been allowed to appreciate just how inseparable human and daemon are. By changing Tony to Billy (whose Mom, you will recall is in the Gyptian group), there is now also a strong maternal pull to make you realise just what a crime it is that has been committed. However, it is at this point that we leave Billy and he’s never mentioned again. Is removing the daemon really that bad? Can we have some guidance here?

Whatever the repercussions of the cutting-away, it seems that this is what the scientists of the Magisterium are doing in their citadel, and so inevitably we move across the ice to a grand showdown under the stars.

Before that, two things which those of you who have been keeping awake, will be aware of, need to be resolved. Firstly, didn’t Nicole Kidman used to be in this? And second, going further back, whatever happened to Daniel Craig? Kidman and Craig are seen briefly after the first act, the first in a scene back in London where, having lost Lyra, she returns to the Magisterium to mutter darkly with Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee and Edward de Souza about how deep and mellifluous their voices are. Well, not de Souza’s, who doesn’t have a line; nor Lee, who only has five or six. Jacobi, too, is criminally underused. This on it’s own, regardless of the fact that there must – there just has to be – a longer and more fleshed out cut yet to be seen, betrays the sense that less is not more. A grander vision is lying in a film can somewhere. Surely? But yes, Kidman, back to Mrs Coulter, who arrives slinkily at the scientist’s lair just as Lyra has infiltrated it herself, in time to catch a neat explanation of how the daemon cutting will cure all children of the need ever to have free will again. Finally, something serious upon which to hang your interest. All too briefly, unfortunately, this devolves to a confrontation, where the Gyptians plus the bear and Scoresby (now in a balloon) bump up against the Magisterium’s armed guard.

No grand discussion here, then. No thought-provoking examination of the human condition. Just a fight. And it is just a fight, too, it’s certainly not the Rohirrim charge on the Pelennor Fields, in fact it’s all over very quickly and is gloomily confusing, even if the witches do turn up to add a little Goth glam to the proceedings. Eva Green really does look smashing…have I said that already? As it ends, Lyra, her friend Roger, Lee, Iorek and Serafina head off even further North to rescue Asriel.

Ah, yes, Asriel, who has travelled North to do, well, something, that was, hang on, mentioned almost, what, two hours previously? He is seen very briefly, like Kidman, in a tiny scene on a mountain where he looks across a valley and says to his leopard, “Ah, the kingdom of Svalbard!” Presumably he’d not told her where they were going. Then he gets captured by some bandits and that’s that.

And, alarmingly, that’s where the movie ends. Yes, there, not with Ariel being sprung from his mountain fortress or even stepping into the pierced sky and entering another universe. Is that all? Are all these too-brief wonders really going to be left here? Is this enough to drag us back? “There are worlds beyond our own”, the poster shouts. Are there? Who says? Asriel wants to provide proof at the very beginning of the story, but unfortunately as it draws to an end we see nothing, and we’re asked to take that promise on Faith. And that’s a big request, especially of an audience treated in such a cavalier fashion.

There is much to admire here, but so many false notes struck, and jerks and jabs tossed in to knock us off our stride. When Peter Jackson released his Rings trilogy he made the DVD versions bigger and brasher, adding almost an hour to each part, and in doing so created a much more cohesive set of works. If New Line want another world-conquering trilogy on their hands, they’d better start putting back some of the good cut stuff, because this might be tempting, but it may not be tempting enough. That free will the story champions could end up seeing this franchise stumble at the first hurdle.

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