“HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS” (2007) Review

“HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS” (2007) Review”

I might as well make one thing clear . . . I have never read Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, “His Dark Materials”. But this did not deter my interest in seeing the movie based upon the first novel, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS”. And quite frankly, I am glad that I had seen it.

Directed by Chris Weitz, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” opened with the beginning of the “HIS DARK MATERIALS” saga. In it, a young girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), lives at Jordan College (of Oxford University) in an alternate dimension of Great Britain. She saves er uncle, world explorer/scholar Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) from being poisoned by the Magisterium (the dimension’s religious ruling body) after he has revealed his discovery of elementary particles called Dust – something that the ruling body consider a threat to their authority. After her uncle departs upon an expedition to the North to find more Dust, Lyra befriends another scholar and explorer named Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) during a dinner held at Jordan College. While visiting Mrs. Coulter in London, Lyra learns that her hostess is a member of the Magisterium and has participated in the kidnapping of young children, including two of her friends – a kitchen servant named Roger, and a Gyptian boy named Billy Costa. She also discovers that Mrs. Coulter wants her hands on the last alethiometer, a device that resembles a golden compass. This device, which was given to Lyra by Jordan College’s Master, is able to reveal the answer to any question asked by the user.

After escaping Mrs. Coulter’s London flat, Lyra is rescued by the Gyptians, who plans to rescue Billy and the other children. They take Lyra to the Norweigian town of Trollsund, where she meets an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot). She also meets Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) who is a queen of the witches, and an armoured bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellan). With her new friends, Lyra embarks upon an adventure that leads her to a conflict between her friend Iorek and the false king of the amored bears, Ragnar Sturlusson (voice of Ian McShane); and to Bolvangar, an experimental station in the North where the Magisterium are severing the Gyptian children from their daemons. Before the movie ends Lyra learns that Lord Asriel has been captured by Magisterium spies and that Mrs. Coulter plans to assassinate him. She, Roger, Scoresby and Serafina set out to rescue the endangered explorer by the end of the movie.

Like any other movie, good or bad, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” has its flaws. There were three of them that I found noticeable. One, the movie’s plot seemed rather vague on Lord Asriel’s fate after he was captured by the Magisterium’s spies in the North. Serafina gave a brief explanation to Scoresby near the end, as they set out to find Asriel. But still . . . I found it vague. Two, the editing by Anne V. Coates seemed a bit choppy in a few spots. And most importantly, the movie’s pacing . . . at least in the first third, seemed very rushed. Some people have complained that too many aspects of the story had been stuffed in the script. I personally feel that Weitz had simply rushed the story. By the time Lyra and the Gyptians reached Trollsund, the director seemed to have finally found a natural pace.

However, I must admit that “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” had turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Honestly, it is quite good. The story was intriguing. Chris Weitz did a decent job in adapting Pullman’s novel for film, even if he did rush the first third of the story. I simply adored Henry Braham’s photography and Ruth Myer’s costume designs – especially Nicole Kidman’s elegant, 1930s style costumes. But I must commend Richard L. Johnson. Chris Lowe and Andy Nicholson for their sumptious art direction – especially their view of London in Pullman’s world. And Dennis Gassner deserves an Oscar nomination for his production design, as far as I am concerned.

The actors were first rate. What does one expect from a cast with the likes of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam Elliot, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay? I especially have to give kudos to Craig who seemed like the embodiment of the ruthless, yet enthusiastic scholar Lord Asriel. And Nicole Kidman brought great style, charm and ruthlessness to the role of the villainous Mrs. Coulter. But she also gave the character a much needed pathos, when the lady revealed to our young heroine that she was the latter’s mother. It was quite thrilling to see Eva Green as a woman of action in her portrayal of the queen witch, Serafina Pekkala. Ian McKellan and Ian McShane were excellent as the feuding armored bears. And Jim Carter (who is married to HARRY POTTER actress Imelda Staunton) was most intimidating as the Gyptians’ king, John Faa. Seeing Sam Elliot’s portrayal as the charming aeronaut, Lee Scoresby, reminded me why I have remained a fan of his for so long. His scenes with young Dakota Blue Richards really crackled. He seemed like the embodiment of a fine wine that has aged very well.

“THE GOLDEN COMPASS”‘s center . . . the character that held the movie together was none other than first-time British actress, Dakota Blue Richards. This young lady was a find. She was absolutely perfect as the charming, yet bold and cunning Lyra. Some Washington D.C. critic had compared her unfavorably to another actress named Dakota – namely Dakota Fanning. Granted, the latter is an excellent actress, but so is Miss Richards. She managed to convey all of Lyra’s complex traits without turning the character into an adult in a child’s body. She was simply superb.

I am sure there are fans of Pullman’s novels who are disappointed that the movie did not turn out to be an exact adaptation of the literary version. All I can say is I am sorry, but I have never heard of any movie being an exact adaptation of its literary source. And if you are hoping to find one in the future, you will be disappointed. Yes, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” has its flaws. What movie does not? But it certainly has enough virtues, including a superb leading actress, that made it enjoyable . . . at least for me.

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