Review: The Golden Compass

I saw The Golden Compass twice in less than 24 hours (the first viewing was on Friday, at the little cinema on Baker Street, truly a terrible place, where seats collapse, screens are tiny, and, in this instance, a badly-marked and inaudible print was run), and the second time, the sound was as it should have been.

I read the novel on which the film was based about nine years ago, in Budapest, and enjoyed it immensely. The introduction of a talking polar bear, and a cowboy balloonist, among other elements, was as quirky as the anti-theology was thoughtful, and the plot was gripping. Lyra seemed a classic character. I didn't expect the film to be this good, simply because I feared the rather English essence of it (based on Exeter College, Oxford, and other very British traditions, like stiff-upper-lip explorers) would be drained away (as was done with The Dark Is Rising film, ruining it).

Instead, the movie is a treat to watch. It is very retro in feel, and texture - a bizarre cross of Oliver Twist, Pippi Longstockings, and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. To that should be added the other obvious, if startling, filmic inspiration, Dune (a film that one day will be seen as brilliant). The movie is, as Peter Bradshaw has noted, far stranger than anyone could have hoped it might be. The shadowy close-ups of aging British movie icons, the art deco zeppelins, the old-fashioned, thrillingly strident music, and the unusually slinky Mrs. Coulter (Kidman) make the film run like a very classic show from the start.

That being said, the movie is so good, it reveals the weakness of the novel it is based upon. Most everyone says Pullman is a master-storyteller, but that is not true - more interestingly, he becomes a better writer as his trilogy progresses, and in this first novel, Northern Lights, what were clever were the elements (the souls outside the body, the off-kilter anachronisms) - not the overall storyline. In short, the film exposes the lack of any central dramatic journey in the work - yes, there is a race to rescue children, but the battle for their lives is won easily, and no powerful resistance is made - and so the film ends with a great sighing anti-climax. Meanwhile, the theology and anti-God stuff putters along, a little winded and alone, by the side of the main plot, basically bewildering and unfun. The Magisterium (aka The Church) seems as threatening as a museum - simply a big dull place to wander in, and its members are either sexy women, or weak-looking men. Their one weapon is an automated fly that is quickly cupped in a normal glass. Okay, they also have an ineffectual recourse to poison Tokai. The cutting machine is dispensed with so simply, it comes across as a gizmo, not the ontological-killer it is.

The movie works as a great children's yarn, full of wonder, innocence, and spectacle. The sequels, if there are sequels, should up the darkness and danger factors, considerably. And also include a genuinely engaging dramatic issue to be resolved.

Still, well worth seeing. Twice.

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