The Golden Compass
"I wish I had a daemon," my son said to me, after we finished chapter five. I said I knew how he felt; it's hard to imagine anyone reading Philip Pullman's "The Northern Lights" and not wanting one.
In case you haven't read it (or "The Golden Compass", as it's known in the US), everyone in this alternate universe has a daemon, an animal companion a bit like Pinocchio's Jiminy Cricket; but a daemon isn't your conscience, exactly, more like your soul. And children's daemons are the coolest, because they can still change form. Pan - or Pantalaimon - is Lyra's daemon, and he might be a moth one minute, a goldfinch, a cat, a marmoset, or even a panther, depending on the circumstances.
It's a challenging conceit for a moviemaker, hard to establish character without visual consistency. Except that these aren't really characters in their own right - they're extensions of their human. Ten years ago, the effects wouldn't have been there, but today CGI's possibilities really do seem limitless. You want an emotional connection between a young girl and a talking warrior polar bear? Consider it done. On that score the movie passes with flying colours.
The visual design is splendid. Pullman put old and new, the familiar and the strange side by side, and the film does the same - there's a wonderful shot of London reflected in the glass of an airship's viewing window, the Gherkin protruding among a cluster of gothic spires. Early twentieth century art deco and nouveaux fashions come with a contemporary twist, and industrial age technology includes a paddle-steamer with sails and "spy flies" - a steam-punk variation on the insect-like surveillance tools the Pentagon is rumoured to have developed.
Writer-director Chris Weitz (hardly a natural fit on the back of Down to Earth and About a Boy) doesn't make the most out of this. The movie clocks in at a trim 113 minutes; that's half an hour shorter than The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, 40 minutes shorter than The Philosopher's Stone, and a full hour shorter than The Fellowship of the Ring. I don't say this often, but it should have been longer.
Weitz - or more likely the studio, New Line - is in such a rush to cut to the chase the movie is less atmospheric, less lived in that it might have been. The early scenes at Jordan College, Oxford bear the worst of the scars, with too much explication packed into the first 15 minutes.
In brief (deep breath): Lyra is an orphan under the care of the scholars at the behest of her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). A dodgy looking cleric, Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney) tries to poison Asriel, but Lyra foils the plot. Asriel is after funding for further arctic exploration. He is looking for evidence of alternate worlds, linked, somehow, to the power of cosmic dust particles. This research is not to the liking of the Magesterium, an authoritarian Church body that seems to be in the ascendant in this world. Asriel gets his funding, but in his absence the glamorous Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) whisks Lyra off to London.
Lyra finds evidence linking her new mentor with the Gobblers - bogeymen who snatch children for who knows what? Her friends Roger and Billy are already among the Gobblers' victims. Oh, and the master of the college has given her a precious object, an "alethiometer", which resembles nothing so much as a golden compass.
There's a lot of plot to get through - Pullman writes page-turners no doubt, but without his shrewd scene-setting it feels almost as melodramatic as an old Saturday morning adventure serial. The speed with which Lyra fathoms the mysteries of the alethiometer is positively dizzying.
Things settle a bit once we get to the frozen North, scene to several epic battles involving armies of gyptians (travelers), panzerbjorn (armoured polar bears), Tartars, witches and even an aeronautical cowboy (Sam Elliott). Okay, perhaps "settle" is pushing it, but who's complaining with all this to look at?
Casting is mostly strong: Kidman was Philip Pullman's choice (as she has said, not much of a compliment really), and she's perfect: dazzling and ice-cold. Her Invasion co-star Daniel Craig is only briefly around but he makes a strong impression in his 007 minutes on screen. Jim Carter is a bit broad as John Faa, King of the Gyptians, but good to see Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby.
Best of all, newcomer Dakota Blue Richards is a terrific Lyra, bursting with energy and spirit, the epitome of the unruly, inquisitive, free mind the Coulters and their ilk fear so greatly.
It's a shame that New Line is not made of sterner stuff. They bottled out and elected to chop off the last three chapters of the book and save them for a potential sequel. It would be a real pity if they didn't go ahead with the whole trilogy. You come out of this grand movie eager for more. At the very least, I'll bet a forthcoming extended cut on DVD will be a more satisfying deal. Now where I can get me one of those panzerbjorn?
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