Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards,
Ben Walker, Eva Green. Rated PG-13.
With its teeming cast of
villainous magistrates and enigmatic warriors, The Golden Compass is a dizzying experience, a labyrinthine epic condensed
into two hours of effects-driven fantasy and hasty exposition. Will that be
enough to satisfy fans of Philip Pullman’s widely read His
Dark Materials trilogy? Hard to say. But for the uninitiated this is an
engaging adventure, even when Chris Weitz’s screenplay lacks the compelling
clarity of Pullman’s prose.
It’s easy to understand
have likened The Golden Compass to
Chronicles of Narnia – both stories thrust
unwitting children into battle in an alternate universe inhabited by
treacherous adults, anthropomorphic beasts and mysterious witches.
Ideologically, though, they couldn’t be more different.
C.S. Lewis intended his
novels as a testament to the glory of Christianity, Pullman – an avowed atheist
who has never concealed his disdain for Narnia – conceived The Golden Compass as a thinly veiled critique of the church’s archaic and
inflexible doctrine. Here, Pullman’s allegory has been toned down by Weitz, who
concentrates more on the story’s aesthetics than on its most subversive
In that regard, The Golden
Compass isn’t likely to make anyone forget
the visual splendor of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it remains an impressive feat, seamlessly
blending live action with the superior (and tastefully employed) animation
necessary to give Pullman’s world of “daemons” – talkative, shape-shifting
animals who represent extensions of their human masters’ souls – an authentic
Lesser actors might have been
upstaged by so many CGI critters and elegantly rendered set pieces, but The
Golden Compass is driven by an ensemble
cast that breathes ferocious life into Pullman’s dark material. Newcomer Dakota
Blue Richards, as young heroine Lyra Belacqua, is a revelation. At 13, she has
real presence, bringing tense, wild-eyed energy to a precocious orphan who,
like Harry Potter, is thought to be some kind of savior.
credentials? For one, she’s
the only soul on the planet who can interpret the golden compass, a mystical
device – much like Jack Bauer’s cell phone – that can solve even the most
confounding mysteries. It’s an invaluable tool, and the Magisterium, a
brotherhood of sinister clerics bent on universal mind-control, is determined
to possess it. To that end, they deploy their most insidious weapon: Marisa
Coulter (no relation to Ann), a cold-blooded manipulatrix who orchestrates a
plot to kidnap children and crush their spirits through a series of sadistic
Nicole Kidman was rumored to be Pullman’s
first choice for the part, and it’s not hard to see why. As a deceptively
charming ice queen, she relishes her role with a diabolical abandon that is one
of the film’s most sublime pleasures. Rounding out Weitz’s stellar cast are Sam
Elliott, as a grizzled aeronaut; the underutilized Daniel Craig, as Lyra’s
science-minded uncle; and Ian McKellen, who provides the thunderous voice of
ursine warrior Iorek Byrnison.
The film’s ending
open-ended, though hardly dissatisfying. Clearly, The Golden Compass is just the first chapter in a series of adventures
planned by New Line, the same studio responsible for Lord of the
Rings. As such, it begs a few obvious questions – the importance
of Pullman’s ethereal Dust, for instance, is never properly explained – but
remains a thoroughly beguiling beginning.