Friday, 7 December 2007

The Golden Compass - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Chris Weitz
Screenwriter: Chris Weitz
Running Time: 113 mins
Certificate: PG
Out: Dec 5th

The Golden Compass (known in book form as The Northern Lights in the U.K.) has arrived on a wave of insurmountable hype. The first trailer saw New Line Cinema directly reference Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the quote-covered poster, adorning bus shelters everywhere, proclaims it to be the big Christmas release of 2007. Now the dust has cleared, is the multi-million dollar adaptation of the first book in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy really the successor to Frodo and company? It’s an unfair comparison, but they started it.

In this alternate universe, animals known as daemons manifest people’s souls physically, a mysterious particle known only as Dust connects parallel worlds and a fascist Church, euphemistically referred to as The Magistereum, tries to control people’s lives. The plot, which follows young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), defies synopsis, which is probably why director Chris Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) has seemingly turned to the York notes for the purposes of adapting the screenplay. The big scenes and mythology are hit quickly, and all the characters are present and correct, yet no time is invested in characterization or sensible plotting. Apart from Richards’ feisty debut as Lyra, every performer fails to leave an impression.

The film takes us from Oxford College where the orphaned and unruly Lyra has been living all of her life, to the North Pole where Magistereum sanctioned scientists are attempting nasty experiments on kidnapped children. On the way Lyra briefly resides with the villainous Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), joins forces with the exiled armoured bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellan) and aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot), while searching for her best friend who is awaiting his fate in the icy experiment bunker in Svalbard.

Everything is brushed over so quickly, and so poorly edited together, that anyone not familiar with the novel will struggle to follow Lyra from A to B. Her brief flirtation with high society and the betrayal of Mrs Coulter is reduced to a forty-second montage. Important characters such as Scorseby and the witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) are just exposition vehicles, hanging around waiting for the protagonist to turn up. In one laughable scene, Pekkala appears for the first time and floats down from the sky and lands on a boat Lyra is travelling on, delivers some elucidation and floats off again. Speaking of worthless characters, Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel may feature prominently on the posters, but has a glorified cameo in the film. A pointless action scene not present in the book is added to remind us he is still hanging about, yet his most important scenes and the books final chapters are completely cut, a decision that shows a complete lack of testicular fortitude on the part of the filmmaker.

Weitz has claimed in interviews that his influences when making The Golden Compass were Barry Lyndon and Star Wars. Hmmm, interesting. Kubrick’s Lyndon was like a painting brought to life, yet Weitz’s version of Pullman’s world is infuriatingly insular. The rubbery CGI environments are disconnected and the sound stage work leaves everything floundering on the micro-level, when this is a film that should clearly be reflecting the macro-issues of this world. You can see every hair follicle on the polar bears and the menagerie of daemons, yet none of it feels even close to being real. This is a film made by accountants and technicians, not artists. And as for Star Wars…well he certainly has the hammy dialogue down.

Two years ago Chris Weitz dropped out of this project and was replaced by Anand Tucker (And When Did You Last See Your Father?), claiming that he was not mature enough a filmmaker to do this story justice. Despite returning to the film 6 months later, it would seem he was entirely correct in his initial self-assessment. In the film, the most evil deed that can be committed is the attempted split of the connection between the human and the soul daemon and everyone puts their lives on the line to prevent it. Unfortunately Weitz was not so brave and the soul of Pullman’s novel has been brutally severed by execs at New Line Cinema, who have learned nothing from their experience on the Tolkien adaptations. The Golden Compass film is not a meditation on free will vs religion wrapped up in a rollicking good fantasy yarn. It is a bloated and monotonous wreck of a film and I can only hope they don’t commission the sequels and ruin the other two novels.

1 comment:

Joseph Wren said...

Agreed, this was a total disaster. I couldn't stop laughing at Sam Elliott, who pretty much plays his Big Lebowski character - in my head he's saying "The Dude abides" to that big ass Norwegian polar bear.