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The Golden Compass

The alethiometerSome of us have been anticipating this film with hard to conceal excitement for a long time. This is how it is when a film is made of a book which many people have felt a fierce passion for. That book of course is Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, and one's keen anticipation has survived the American renaming of the book, and the controversy over some of the themes, and the inevitable reduction which goes along with condensing a complex story into a couple of hours of cinema.

Right:- Here's the alethiometer, the golden compass of the title. I'm not completely certain it's ever referred to as such in the book. It tells the truth, sort of. It's exasperating that characters in the film find it necessary to explain the name more than once. How slow is the audience imagined to be? But... it's a beautiful thing isn't it? Like the design of everything else in Lyra's world, it's perfect and fitting.

Philip Pullman's story engaged so many readers for a host of reasons. The principal one was the character of Lyra herself, a young 'orphan' girl convincingly brimming with intelligence, compassion and desire; desire for knowledge, for justice, and everything that should be right about the world. Lara and the GyptiansShe's also young and wilful, and makes mistakes. The book has the time and space to render all of those qualities effectively; a film has a narrower window of opportunity. I guess I'm hinting that the end result isn't perfect. The casting of Dakota Blue Richards is a very good one in my view, she looks just right, and holds her place on the screen. I particularly appreciate that she isn't a typical stage school product. This role needed something different. Of course there is a downside, in her relative lack of stagecraft, and some people have thought her performance a bit wooden. For me it was fine and I hope she gets the chance to grow in the part in two further films. But that's another matter isn't it? New Line have been a little equivocal about their commitment to completing the trilogy. The film seems to have done well here in the UK but we're small fry to Hollywood. And there'll be many lovers of the book, like me, who won't be bothering to buy the dvd.

PanThe second reason for the book's success was almost certainly, amongst so many novel ideas, that of having one's own personal 'daemon'. An external soul or spirit, manifesting as an animal reflecting the nature of the person. Pullman fleshed out the idea beautifully: he conceived of how the species might change wildly during childhood but become fixed after puberty; how separation of the daemon and the person might be fatal, to the human spirit at least, but that for some very strong individuals the daemon might be able to travel some distance from its owner; and that the daemon's behaviour might be an externalisation of the inner thoughts or feelings of its owner. And there is one scene in the book, recreated in the film very well, in which Mrs Coulter's malevolent golden monkey shows her dominance over Lyra with a brutal overpowering of Lyra's daemon Pantalaimon. Only ever called Pan in the film, I think. Here (right) some sort of ermine(?), but often a cat.

Nicole Kidman as Mrs CoulterMrs Coulter, ah yes. Here was another reason for the power of the story, a classic villain. She's the sort of character that Cruella de Ville might have been if you met her in the real world. She's complex and it's not a huge surprise in the film when she reveals her true relationship with Lyra. But the book takes a longer time to get there and manages to show that she's still a damaging mother. Whereas Nicole Kidman just comes across as someone dying to roll out her true maternal nature. I can see why Philip Pullman was keen for her to play the part, she has the right kind of cool intimidating beauty, and an edge of iciness in her eyes when she wants. For myself I would have liked someone with a bit more physical presence, but I'm at a loss to suggest anyone better.

Or, indeed, than Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel (a brief presence in this part of the story - some may have been confused, because he was prominent in the advance promotion); Jim Carter and Tom Courtenay as Gyptians, Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala (interesting accent!) and several other famous faces. Though Christopher Lee was a little wasted. Hopefully he's being saved for later. More prominent here amongst the Magisterium is Derek Jacobi at his most nastily imperious. Lots of well known names amongst the voices, too, for me the most impressive being Ian McKellen as Iorek and Ian McShane surprisingly good as Ragnar (now, why on earth did they change that name?) the Claudius-like evil bear king.

Airship at Jordan CollegeThe story hinges around the concept of multiple universes, universes in which the laws of nature can be subtly different. Hence the daemons, and much else which become gradually more important, like 'dust'. All the differences of Lyra's world are so fascinating that the film always had a ready audience of people who wanted to see it realised. Like me. But I ended up with the strangest problem. Strange because one unthinkingly hopes to see the world of the book as we imagine it. I may have discovered that isn't a good thing, not when that world is created in CGI. What I found is that Lyra's world is almost exactly as I imagined it. With minor differences, like the airships, which I envisaged as much more like ours - these (left) wouldn't be able to lift what they do in the film, in our world. Anyway, why am I complaining if the film is so close to what I imagined? Because you want your eyes opened by spectacle, by surprise. You want more, no matter how imaginative you might be. And CGI is astonishing now - see the detail in the aerial shots of Oxford and London, and the fight between Iorek and Ragnar - but the real world will always have more detail in it, because it has detail in it which isn't needed. It's a bit like the difference between analogue audio and digital: supposedly, cd recording doesn't need the extra detail, because the human ear only hears a certain part of the sound spectrum. Lyra with IorekBut everyone knows analogue is richer. The CGI is at its weakest when there's less to see, in the scenes in the frozen North. For all that Oxford looks amazing, Bolvangar looks barren and wrong, so obviously unnaturally empty that you wonder why they didn't flesh it out.

Right:- Lyra with Iorek, the armoured bear, a marvellous character in his own right and high up many readers' list of reasons to love the book.

The worst emptiness is in the script. Its weaknesses are so glaring that I'm at a loss to know why they didn't do anything about it. Actors can only cover up so much. The director and scriptwriter, one and the same, are guilty of not trusting the intelligence of the audience. And he or the film company are criminally guilty of ignoring the grown up nature of the material. You'd think that by now we knew that you can have stories which are adult despite freaturing children as principal characters. Okay, maybe the case of Northern Lights isn't so clear cut, because it's actually brilliantly accessible by both children and adults. Different things will appeal. However, here in The Golden Compass they've made a children's film. Where they'll be caught out is in the fact that children aren't quite so stupid, especially not the ones who got into the book, and children hate being patronised. I'm sure that the controversy over the exclusion of the anti-religion theme is missing the point. They may have been trying to avoid troubling the sensitivity of the Christian right in the US (our religious leaders were relaxed about the issue, and in fact recognised that merely by making readers think about spirituality, everybody won); but it's more likely that those aspects are blanded out simply because it's a kids' film.

Yeuch. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I went to see the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle, and the acting turns. But what a missed opportunity. Maybe the book will live on, and someday in the future somebody will decide to make an intelligent and adult version. But did you know they had a script by Tom Stoppard? What could have been so wrong with it that they didn't want to use it? Wouldn't you love to get your hands on it and see for yourself?

27 December 2007


Golden Compass websiteThe official film website. It's excellent. And I'm not just saying that because this was my cousin Amanda's project. There's loads of good content, but in particular there's an extremely well rendered alethiometer to play around with; and most compulsively of all, you can discover your own daemon. You answer some personality questions on the lines of 'do you always ask questions?' and 'do others listen when you speak?', and then you're told the name of your daemon, and its animal type. And there the fun starts. When you ask other people what they came up with. I assume the game - which is what it is - is biased, because let's face it we don't want to be told we're a poodle, not when the introduction explains that servant types typically have dogs for daemons. I've mostly been a tiger when I've done it, and I thought that was gratifying, until I saw that tigers are far and away the most popular result; while certain friends are variously a spider, a crow, an osprey etc. I would love to know how they answered the questions to get those results!

Philip Pullman's websiteThis is Philip Pullman's own official site. To be honest you won't get a lot from it about the film, but I've added the link because I wonder if that, and the fact that he hasn't updated it for some while, doesn't speak volumes.