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The Golden Compass Review

The Golden Compass
Samrat Sharma /
Can watch again
Good for kids
Good for dates
Wait to rent it
The Golden Compass is an utterly unconvincing and un-extraordinary film that manages something that many films can't: it is completely hastened in its narrative, yet is thoroughly dragging in its execution. It rips through its 113-minute running time, yet never manages to make anything - character, plot point or theme - even remotely interesting. It's a rough draft of a film that contains within itself the vestiges of something truly epic that never makes it to the screen.

The epic I am talking about is, of course, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy of books. The post Harry Potter world has seen teenage fantasy fiction crop up like mushroom on wet trees, but this series stands tall among them as being an emotional and gut-wrenching tale; a graphic, mature, coming-of-age story that pulls no punches in its criticism of The Church.

Fans of the books will be disappointed to find that the film barely covers the deep thematic undertones of the books, and never gives any of their beloved character any depth, while people who haven't read them will be completely confused as they won't have any idea why half of the things that happen in the film are there at all. This is in part also the fault of a studio decision that has ended in the film's ending being removed, making it utterly limp.

Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan who lives in Oxford, though this is an alternate world to ours, where people's souls are manifested as an external living being called a daemon. These daemons are shape changing when they are children but take the form of their master's personality as an animal as they grow in age. Lyra is under the care of her derring-do uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), but when he leaves Oxford for his experiments, she becomes an understudy to a rich socialite Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman).

Children in her town are being kidnapped by a mysterious band of people, and she soon finds out that Mrs. Coulter is behind the shadowy people. Since she is one of those kids being prophesized about in films like these, she heads north to find her uncle, and takes the help of friends like the giant armor-wearing polar bear Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen) and aeronaut cowboy Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot).

As thrilling as this sounds, the film just introduces all this in less time that it would take you to buy popcorn. That is the inherent problem of the movie - it just keeps zipping from point to point without any gravitas or background to the characters or the actual narrative pacing. The result? When the final tidal wave of CGI is unleashed upon you, you are beyond giving two s#%ts.

The anti-Christianity tones of the books have been cut to placate the radical movie watchers, but to make it more palatable, I assume, for the young audiences, everything else of consequence that makes the book mature has been removed. The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in India) concludes with an event that shakes you. It is tragic, powerful, heart-breaking, and not in the least justified as a happy ending, but it is nevertheless something that blows us apart. The film removes this neatly, to have some sort of a happy ending - only, it is so abrupt and limp it serves more as a WTF moment.

There are some great moments for the fans when we see the many of the favorite characters so lovingly realized on screen. But for the rest of the people who have paid for the entry ticket, the film talks a lot about the themes of the books, but doesn't actually show anything, ending up making very little sense.

You know what is even crazier? The final moments of the film that were cut off were a victim of a haphazard mad decision at the last moment, because it makes an appearance in the videogame adaptation. This film was a Christmas release in the US, and the fact that the anti-Christian Church themes of the film were removed makes complete sense from a business point of view, but leaving the ending halfway through so that everyone leaves the theater happy-happy-joy-joy is just stupid.

The well-done CGI is also a victim of the small thinking of the studios. So much money has been spent on the tiniest of details, but the actual epic scope of a film such as this is missing. For a movie this well-made technically, it is almost criminal that the actual content is so hollow.

Sigh. If you do decide to watch this, however, at least you will be treated to an ever-beautiful Nicole Kidman and a surprisingly effective Daniel Craig giving very good performances, and a little child (Richards) overpowering that with her sheer brilliance in screen presence.
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The Golden Compass (english) reviews
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  • Cast
    Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Eva Green, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Ian McShane, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas, Edward De Souza, Kathy Bates
  • Music
    Alexandre Desplat
  • Director
    Chris Weitz
  • Theatres
    Not screening currently in any theatres in Hyderabad.
Can watch again - NA
Good for kids - NA
Good for dates - NA
Wait to rent it - NA
Amrish Puri on 20th Jan 2008, 4:52pm | Permalink
The Golden Compass, the long awaited cinematic adaptation of Philip Pullman's well-respected novel, is an adequate but not inspired translation of the source material. Writer/director Chris Weitz (one of the American Pie guys) brings a style that is more obligatory than deft. Constrained by a rushed feel and too little character development, this movie never seems to flow quite right. Passages of dense exposition are interspersed with impressively staged action/adventure sequences but the experience as a whole is less than what movies like The Lord of the Rings have shown us that fantasy adaptations can provide. One key missing element: the world in which this story takes place never feels unique. We aren't drawn into it the way we were with Middle Earth or Hogwarts. In fact, with all the airships flying around, there are times when it feels like an extension of Stardust.

The Golden Compass is the story of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) and how she learns to accept what is special about her. An orphan whose only living relative is the powerful, respected Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), she is hand-picked by the cool, beautiful Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to accompany her on a trip to the north. Lrya is hopeful of seeing the ice bears but, before she can depart, her best friend, Roger (Ben Walker), disappears, captured by a mysterious organization known only as "The Gobblers." And, in strict confidence, she is given an "alethiometer" (which looks like a golden compass) by the Master of Jordan College. It will reveal the truth of things to her, but she must not let Mrs. Coulter know she possesses it.

Life with Mrs. Coulter isn't all Lyra dreamed it would be and, following a violent incident, she runs away. This begins her quest to find and rescue Roger - an endeavor that earns her a number of extraordinary companions, including the armored ice bear Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellan), an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), the Gyptian king John Faa (Jim Carter), and the witch queen Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green). Their goal sets them directly in opposition to the men who would deny the populace free will, and Mrs. Coulter still has a part to play in Lyra's development as a person.

Two of the more unique ideas employed in the His Dark Material trilogy (of which The Golden Compass is the first volume) are the concepts of daemons and dust. Characters in this universe do not have souls in a traditional sense. Instead, they are accompanied by animal familiars that are living embodiments of their souls. And "dust" is a metaphysical concept that makes possible the travel between universes. It's the thing most feared by the ruling power since it challenges those men's ultimate authority.

The film's final 45 minutes, which feature several rousing battle sequences (including an all-CGI bear-on-bear affair), will wake up those who have dozed off by that time. For the most part, The Golden Compass' first hour can be a struggle to sit through. The characters are sketchily developed and many of the things about which Pullman can go into great depth in the novel are glossed over in the movie. The compromises made to get this on screen are easy to identify but it's questionable whether they have resulted in a better product.

Nicole Kidman, supposedly Pullman's personal choice for Mrs. Coulter, understands what it takes to play an ice queen. She could have been the witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She has plenty of screen time and, although she never shines, she captures the conflicted essence of the character. Her big-name co-star, Daniel Craig, hardly has more than a glorified cameo. There are two other venerable actors with even less visibility: Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee as Magesterial officials. Lee's old Lord of the Rings buddy, Ian McKellan, is also along for the ride, although this time, he's only doing voice work. Sam Elliott seems a little out of place, although one wonders how the character would have fared if Pullman's choice, Samuel L. Jackson, had been cast. Finally, there's newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, who shows pluck and spirit but isn't the best young actress to grace the screen in the last ten years.

The religious controversy surrounding the movie amounts to much ado about nothing. Yes, Philip Pullman is an atheist and there are atheist themes in the book. They don't make it to the movie, which ignores religion altogether and makes the story about the exercise of free will against tyranny. His Dark Materials is no more a bible for atheists than The Chronicles of Narnia is a Christian tract. Both stories were influenced by the philosophies of their respective authors but each can stand on its own without looking too deeply into the subtext.

New Line Cinema is desperately hoping His Dark Materials will represent their next The Lord of the Rings. They would like nothing better than for The Golden Compass to have a huge opening weekend that demands the greenlighting of a sequel. I wonder whether that's a reasonable expectation, however. The Golden Compass is a vastly different property from The Lord of the Rings. It is not epic fantasy. It takes place in a world that's more Dickens than Middle Earth. There are no dragons or orcs or trolls or wizards. There are no clashes between armies of thousands. There is not a complete immersion for the viewer in another world. The Lord of the Rings is simple, visceral fantasy. The Golden Compass is shrouded in philosophy and ideas. About the only things the two first volumes have in common is that they are quest-oriented and they can be found in the same section of the bookstore.

I hope The Subtle Knife is made. I would like to see how the cinematic version of the trilogy evolves, and the end of The Golden Compass makes it clear there's more of the story to tell. (The stopping point chosen by Weitz, which isn't the same as the end of the book, makes as clean and upbeat an ending as one could hope for.) One senses that many of the problems evident in The Golden Compass result from the difficulties inherent in introducing viewers not only to new characters but to new ideas and a new world. With those birth pains behind, hopefully the second movie will build upon the strengths of the first and provide a fully satisfying motion picture experience.

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