Saturday 29 December 2007

Film review: The Golden Compass

The current Christmas fantasy blockbuster, this is based on Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass outside the UK), the first volume of Philip Pullman's highly successful His Dark Materials trilogy. I read the trilogy a few years ago and, while I wouldn't call myself a fan, thought it worth the fairly considerable time involved (there is a total of nearly 1,300 pages). Although marketed for children, Pullman did not write for this audience - the marketing decision was based on the fact that the principal characters are children - and in fact the tale is rather grim for the young.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a brief background: this is an unusual and complex fantasy, involving a parallel world (of approximately late-Victorian technical development) with people whose souls are housed outside the body, in talking animals called daemons. The story focuses on a 12-year old English girl – Lyra Bellaqua (very well played in the film by 13-year old novice Dakota Blue Richards) – who becomes the focus of interest of the powerful religious Magisterium and its ally, the formidable Mrs Coulter (an excellent performance by Nicole Kidman, with just the right blend of beauty, charm and reasonableness covering evil intent). In this first part, young children keep disappearing and Lyra, with the aid of a truth-divining pocket-watch like device known as the alethiometer (the Golden Compass of the film title), becomes involved in trying to discover what has happened to them. Lyra's journey takes her to an experimental station in the far north, and encounters with giant talking polar bears, who wear armour and live for fighting.

When making a film of a long and complex book (six or seven hours of reading, condensed into a couple of cinematic hours), the film-makers can either cut out many characters and large chunks of the plot, or can try to include all of the key elements but treat them rather briefly. In the case of The Golden Compass, the later course has been selected. The film starts with a long, voice-over infodump to try to get the audience up and running, then (as far as I can recall) remains more or less faithful to the book thereafter, but with each scene cropped in a way which keeps the story moving quickly. This works well enough for those familiar with the plot, for whom it acts as a kind of visual refresher, but may I suspect prove confusing and even irritating to the uninitiated. On the credit side, there are many visually spectacular scenes and the CGI is as good as we have come to expect. The acting is also very good from a strong cast, including the Casino Royale pairing of the rugged Daniel Craig as Lyra's "uncle" Lord Asriel and the beautiful Eva Green as the witch-queen Serafina Pekkala.

The trilogy has attracted controversy because of its anti-religious content, which becomes stronger in the later books. Not surprisingly, the Christian churches have reacted rather badly to the success of the series, although this aspect has been played down in this first film. I presume that films of the other volumes will follow if this one is successful (which so far it seems to be, although less so in the USA).

Overall, a good effort and I will certainly be watching the sequels, if they appear.

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