Afantastic bestiary inhabits The Golden Compass, prowling, slithering and fluttering. The animals, most of which are called daemons, are manifestations of the human soul that hover at the side of their people and near the story’s edge, where their coos and barks mix with the ambient clatter. Because these are no ordinary animals, they also offer words of comfort, advice and warning. In this other-worldly realm, humans have no dominion over these creatures, yet they are not merely equals, either. They are one.
Open window: Lyra has a friend in Iorek Byrnison, an armoured bear.
This beastly attitude and the conception of the soul as being separate from its corporeal vessel are, as far as I can tell, the most irreligious conceits in the movie adaptation of The Golden Compass, a novel first published in Britain as Northern Lights. Written by Philip Pullman, it became a critical and commercial success for obvious reasons: It is a charming romp set in a parallel universe with magical creatures, spooky villains and mythopoetic conceits, and propelled by a young orphan, Lyra Belacqua, who embarks on the hero’s journey with her shape-shifting daemon, Pantalaimon (Pan for short).
That ecclesiastical entity is pretty much nowhere evident in the film, which otherwise hews as close to the original source as can be expected from a 114-minute, big-screen translation of a 400-or-so-page novel. Directed by Chris Weitz, who wrote the condensed script, the film has many of the virtues of a faithful screen adaptation and many of the flaws. Agnostics and atheists may regret the absence of the Church (others may see lingering traces) but the movies have never been a good pulpit for gods other than those of cinema’s own creation. It’s a tradition this film honours with a goddess of icy perfection played by the well-cast Nicole Kidman.
As Mrs Coulter, an emissary of the reigning powers (known only as “the Magisterium” in the film), Kidman has rarely looked more beautifully and exotically alien. When she first appears, she pours across the screen like liquid gold, her body provocatively shifting inside a shimmering gown, her gilt-blond hair and alabaster skin glowing. She’s the most spectacular special effect (her vicious daemon-monkey is a close second), and for once the smooth planes of her face, untroubled by lines, serve the character. This mask-like countenance helps hide her malignant designs from Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, spunky and serviceable), who falls into her care.
Weitz crams so many events, characters (computer-generated and otherwise) and ethereally strange vistas that he risks losing you in the whirl. But despite the pit stops, the story unwinds in fairly straightforward fashion. Lyra, using a compass-like device called an alethiometer, must face danger along with some hard truths. Among the hardest are those involving her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), an adventurer who dashes in and out of her life accompanied by a snow leopard daemon. Aided by quirky types and acting legends (Tom Courtenay in person, Ian McKellen in voice), Lyra follows Asriel to the north, where perils await, along with an intrigue involving stolen children and hints that the book’s two sequels are ready for their big-screen close-ups.
The sequels are welcome because they might persuade Weitz to take it slower next time. The Golden Compass is an honourable work and especially impressive, given the smaller, more intimate scale of his last film as a director (with his brother, Paul), About a Boy. But it is hampered by its fealty to the book and its rushed pace, which forces you to dash through the story.
The Golden Compass released in theatres on Friday.
©2007/The New York Times
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