The Golden Compass

    I have to admit that I read the book by Philip Pullman that this movie is based on and it didn’t thrill me. I didn’t go on to read the other two books in the trilogy in fact. To me it was slow and dense and the anti-religion stuff, which is crammed in at the end, reminded me of listening to a drunk college sophomore, daring to voice all his resentful, blasphemous thoughts for the first time. It may seem to his inexperienced mind that nobody’s ever thought of this stuff before, but really it’s quite common to feel this way. In other words Pullman’s blather isn’t nearly as profound as it’s generally given credit for.
    The fact of the matter is that powerful organizations like organized religions don’t want to give up their power and will do so only under coercion. The Catholic church isn’t unique in this regard; neither are the Southern Baptists, the Mormons, or Microsoft for that matter. Organizations dominating other fields are prone to it too. If you overthrow one, another’s going to take it’s place. It’s the way things are.
    I guess the point of all this is that that I don’t have a problem with the filmmakers watering down Pullman’s anti-Catholic message in the film version of The Golden Compass. Not because I’m religious (I’m not) but because when you have an ax like that to grind, sometimes it gets in the way of the story.
    Speaking of story, The Golden Compass is about Lyra, played by Dakota Blue Richards, an orphan who has grown up in the stodgy atmosphere of Jordan College at Oxford. This is not the Oxford you may be familiar with because the setting is in an alternate universe in which everybody has a daemon, a piece of their conscience that manifests itself as a talking animal. This world is controlled by an oppressive organization (not a religion in the film) called the Magisterium. Lyra runs freely in this Oxford, making friends with the children of the kitchen staff and the local gyptians, who are a gypsy like race of people who live on houseboats. Lately children of this class have been disappearing. Nobody knows why.
    A Magisterium agent named Mrs. Coulter, played by Nicole Kidman, takes an interest in Lyra and offers her a position as an aide and sort of protege. Her uncle, Lord Asriel, played by Daniel Craig would not approve, but he is on an expedition to the North Pole to investigate the substance know as dust and has no say. Mrs. Coulter promises Lyra a trip to the far north as an inducement. Lyra agrees. Before she leaves, the head of the college gives her an alethiometer, which is a compass like device that can detect the truth. He warns her to keep the device a secret, especially from Mrs. Coulter. The Magisterium doesn’t want people to have access to the truth.
    After a short time in Mrs. Coulter’s care Lyra balks at her rules and the promised trip is long in coming. She escapes and begins a chase that leads her north in the company of gyptian allies, a balloon captain, flying witches and the exiled prince of the armored bears of Svalbard. She finds out what’s happening to the kidnapped children and discovers that Lord Asriel is in trouble.
    First of all, this is a beautiful film. Henry Braham’s cinematography, Dennis Gassner’s production design, the art direction, Ruth Myers’s costumes are all a tasteful blend of art deco and Victorian style. The CGI is almost seamless in the way everybody’s daemons are always hovering around in every shot. The cities and airships are gorgeous.
    The performances are good enough. Dakota Blue Richards doesn’t quite capture the rebel quality of Lyra, who in the book isn’t an entirely likable character. None of the adults are called on to stretch themselves here, but Nicole Kidman is beautiful in her smart fashions. Daniel Craig is always fun to watch. Ian McKellan as the voice of Iorek, the armored polar bear is pretty good.
    The main problem with this film is the script. The dialog is clunky at times and could have used a few more rewrites. They relied on narration too much to explain the intricacies of the world, which makes it too easy. And because they were trying to cram a long complicated story into a couple of hours, everything feels rushed or even abridged. You want to linger in a good fantasy world. Here you can’t.
    Still, I’d recommend it. Pretty pictures and armored polar bears go a long way with me.

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