Newest Review: ... film from start to finish, packed full of action and humour so it appealed to the whole family. Unfortunately though, it took far ... more
The Golden Flop
The Golden Compass (DVD)
Member Name: isobelj
The Golden Compass (DVD)
Advantages: Some good performances, visually impressive
Disadvantages: Too diluted to have any impact, rubbish ending
Please note this is a film only review. I saw this at the cinema when it first came out, and when it was on TV recently I recorded it to watch again. The book (Northern Lights by Philip Pullman) that this is based on is one of my favourite books, and I remember being quite disappointed by the film when I saw it at the cinema. I couldn't remember much else about it though, so I thought I'd give it another chance.
The story is set in a parallel universe where humans keep their souls separately to their body, in the form of an animal that never leaves their side, named a daemon. The daemons of children can change shape at will, but once a person reaches puberty, they settle as a fixed animal.
Lyra, and her daemon Pan, live in Jordan college, at Oxford University. They have been brought up by the scholars of the college, and various cooks and housekeepers and nursemaids. She knows nothing of her parents, and her only relative is her uncle, Lord Asriel, who visits only occasionally.
One day when Lyra is making mischief in the college, she stumbles upon a mystery that she doesn't understand. First, she spies someone trying to poison a drink intended for Lord Asriel. Then, she sees Lord Asriel show the scholars a picture of something he refers to as Dust, and hears him speak to them about other worlds that he hopes to travel to. He refuses to take Lyra with him, but she soon finds another way to the North: with the glamorous Mrs Coulter, friend to Jordan college and keen to have Lyra as her assistant.
In the meantime, though, there's another problem: slowly but surely, children are starting to go missing, including two friends of Lyra's. The word on the street is that it's the 'Gobblers' taking the children, and Lyra intends to get her friends back from them.
The story ticks all the right boxes - there is a fantasy element, dashes of politics, groups of people with shady intentions, treks across unknown lands and healthy doses of suspense, intrigue and mystery. Unfortunately, though, I felt the delivery fell a little flat. In theory, this story (regardless of the book on which it was based) could have been a thrilling film from start to finish, packed full of action and humour so it appealed to the whole family. Unfortunately though, it took far too long to get going and I don't think it could really decide what it wanted to be. It didn't go all out with the action, or stick to being more of a political mystery, but instead seemed to hover somewhere in the middle. There were a few half hearted action scenes, cut with tons of sweeping shots of the scenery, interspersed with wordy theoretical discussions, all peppered with scenes where Lyra learns how to use an ancient piece of equipment that no-one else in the world knows how to use in ten minutes flat. It's all a bit odd, and although Lyra is a great character with impressive screen presence, she isn't quite enough to keep the whole thing together.
The makers of the film, New Line, didn't seem to want to leave much to chance. The film was quite big-budget, and in order to make money it would have to capture the American market. Unfortunately, Northern Lights was quite a controversial book when it was first published, because it contained messages that were very anti-organised religion, and more specifically anti-Catholic. This rarely goes down well in the USA where large swathes of the population consider themselves to be religious, and organised religion plays a large part in their lives. The film hugely pared back these themes, but still kind of left them in; this resulted in a diluted story that lacked much punch.
Finally: the ending...well, the ending is awful. Completely pointless. The 'climax' comes from nowhere and features characters we've only seen in passing during the film. It's not too clear why anyone's there. Then, after a little chatting from Lyra, the film just stops. It's slightly embarrassing how obvious it is that a sequel was planned, plus the climax all the book fans will have been waiting for, just...isn't there. It was filmed, then scrapped. Viewers are left dangling, expecting more, because so little has actually been resolved.
I have to say that I think the casting of Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra was perfect. In the very opening scenes you see her at her best: fighting with the gyptian kids, sticking up for someone from her own college and lying for all she's worth. She's fiery and sharp: the perfect tomboy. Whilst she is striking to look at, she's not pretty in a traditional way; there's something about her eyes that is a bit hard and wild. Pullman's Lyra is equally feral and unprincipled.
Due to the worry about religious controversy, big film stars were thrown at this to give it that extra box office appeal.
The icy, cold, hard Mrs Coulter is played by Nicole Kidman, and to great effect, I thought. She is charming and kind when she needs to be, managing to soften up Lyra and get her way among the many male leaders, but she is also brutal when things aren't going the right way. Lord Asriel, Lyra's uncle, is played by Daniel Craig in rather an odd, sarcastic, knowing kind of way. It didn't quite match up with the more political, suave Asriel I had read in the book, but his performance fit well in the film. He was convincing as the rugged explorer, especially as he was then fresh from his first performance as James Bond. For most of the film both Coulter and Asriel's motivations are unclear, and you're never sure whether they're goodies or baddies. But that's one of the things I like about this story - there's no clear right or wrong, and you don't have two distinct camps of good and bad. There are subtleties and mysteries within many of the characters.
Ian McKellen doesn't quite make an appearance in this film, but his voice does. He voices the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison, who helps Lyra on her quest to rescue her friends. This was an odd choice, I thought, because the bears live in the very dark, distant North, and Iorek Byrnison in particular is extremely strong, fit and agile. To hear the voice of an old, English man come from the mouth of a Nordic bear at the prime of his life was a bit disconcerting, to be honest.
Other stars who either appear or voice characters include Kristin Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates, Christopher Lee, Freddie Highmore and Derek Jacobi. A special mention goes to Sam Elliott, who plays aeronaut Lee Scoresby with aplomb.
The soundtrack is very predictable, and just a bit dull, really. There's a lot of adventure discovery type music, and some inspirational chords when Lyra is being brave, and quick action music when people are fighting or getting shot. There's nothing memorable about it at all and I can't even pick out any favourite parts. It's a soundtrack by numbers. This is a shame, because the world Lyra inhabits is like ours but different in so many ways. I would have liked to see some really unique music that put a twist on the traditional adventure movie genre.
The most impressive element to the film was the visuals. As I've said, Lyra's world is like ours in a lot of ways, but their technology and research and so on are different. The main visual challenge would obviously be the daemons, as some of them can change shape, and they can speak. A mixture of CGI and real animals were used to represent the daemons, and I felt that this was done really well. Pan changes shape in several impressive ways, such as when he leaps into the air as a cat and then suddenly turns into a bird. I didn't find myself thinking it looked unrealistic or stilted at all, so it didn't distract from the story. There's also some gorgeous representations of the Northern Lights, showing mysterious cities hidden in the lights. There is a gorgeous scene showing Lyra and some of her friends flying in a balloon towards the lights which is understated but impressive.
There are a couple of parts that are a letdown, visually, though. Lyra is given a mysterious contraption called an alethiometer by the master of her college, which tells the truth - but no-one knows how to read it. Lyra teaches herself how to read it, which is represented on screen by swirling golden pictures. It looks a bit cheesy to be honest, and there was no need to laden this tiny part of the film with special effects. It takes away from how sombre and almost reverent the alethiometer is.
Overall, I'd say this film would probably be of interest to fans of the book, but they're unlikely to be too keen on it. Also, those who haven't read the books would be unable to fill in the gaps left by the hacking away the studio have done to the story. I can only give it three stars: I've watched it twice, but I won't be bothering again.
Summary: A letdown for Pullman fans