By the end of this lavish and somewhat loony adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman's acclaimed fantasy sequence, His Dark Materials, I was uncertain as to whether we should follow, or merely wallow through, its bizarre convolutions. Being unacquainted with the Pullman trilogy, though apprised of its fiercely atheistic tenor, I came prepared for a mixture of storytelling exuberance and intellectual irreverence a sort of Paradise Lost for the Dawkins era. It doesn't end up like that.
Oh, there's a battle afoot between good and evil isn't there always? but it's not between the fire-and-brimstone of religious inquisition and the tolerant spirit of rationalism. The villains here belong to something called the Magisterium, a Kremlin-type institution dedicated to the kidnapping and mind-control of young children. Their current bugbear is the free-thinking Lord Asriel, an Oxford don played by Daniel Craig, in beard-and-tweeds mode, who later goes off exploring the Arctic wastes in search of parallel universes and the secret of "dust", which is supposedly a mystical phenomenon that the Magisterium hates because it might hold the key to understanding the universe. Or something.
This collegiate atmosphere (the early scenes are filmed in Oxford) has a hint of Hogwarts, which gives way to a nip of Narnia, a touch of Tolkien and a pinch of Pirates of the Caribbean. And, it must be said, a great load of gobbledegook, bringing into play gypsies, witches, mockney urchins, talking polar bears and shape-shifting animals known as "daemons", which are manifestations of a human soul.
At the centre of it all is the 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua, niece of Lord Asriel and a wilful, tousle-haired miss upon whose fate many will come to depend. She is feistily played by the newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, all bright eyes and chestnut curls Millais would have liked to paint her.
Lyra averts disaster early on when she tips off her uncle about a spiked bottle of Tokaj, but then finds herself beguiled by the seductive Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) kin of neo-con poster girl Ann Coulter, perhaps? whose overtures of friendship conceal whole swathes of silken wickedness.
She befriends Lyra because the girl has in her possession an alethiometer, otherwise known as the golden compass. This device enables its user "to see what others wish to hide", and thus is sought after by Mrs Coulter and the obscurantist forces of the Magisterium.
The bulk of the plot concerns Lyra's adoption of various allies in the crusade against evil first a band of seafarers known as the Gyptians, led by a hirsute Jim Carter; a beautiful witch named Serafina (Eva Green); a gravel-voiced cowboy, Scoresby (played, inimitably, by Sam Elliott); and, finally, a deposed bear king named Iorek Byrnison who protects Lyra in a gladiatorial showdown with his ursine rival Ragnar (the bears are played by two stage Ians, McKellen and McShane).
This was the single occasion on which I felt my pulse start to quicken two armoured polar bears in a scrap. For, in truth, The Golden Compass, however sophisticated in design and breathless in plotting, is not a very exciting film. Fantasy adventures of this kind stand or fall, for me, on the quality of the villains, and so far they're not remotely scary.
[Trailer subject to copyright]
Simon McBurney as a Magisterial friar at least looks a creep with his bulbous eyes and oleaginous manner. Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi as the Magisterium brass have vocal boom but nothing in the way of menace. Kidman is too busy vamping blondely for the camera to be the new Cruella De Vil.
Where, you would like to know, is the story's Force of Unrelenting Evil? Where is its Voldemort, its Saruman, its (God help us) Darth Vader? Perhaps it is waiting in the wings of parts two and three, in which case it had better be something mightily impressive because this fairy tale already has a superabundance of good guys.
As for Pullman's unambiguous antipathy towards religion, that seems to have been transmuted into a rather vague struggle between "enlightenment" and "intolerance". The studio has allegedly poured 90m into the movie, and will not want to alienate the more God-fearing (ie American) elements of the target audience.
That seems less culpable than the desperate efforts of Chris Weitz's script to be down with "da kidz" and couch the children's dialogue in an appalling street mockney: why should it be considered uncool for people to speak decent English? Children can hear all the sloppy, ungrammatical English they like at school; the least thing fantasy cinema might do is use its influence to make language sound beautiful, too.
In the end The Golden Compass is another expensive mishmash of CGI "magic" and widescreen spectacle: well-acted, as you would expect, but more or less empty of anything to provoke the curiosity and intelligence of a young audience. For that, it sounds like you'll have to read (or reread) Philip Pullman's books.
As for the older audience, you surely have better things to do with your time.Reuse content