The Theory of Chaos

Friday, January 11, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - The Golden Compass

Full review behind the jump

The Golden Compass

: Chris Weitz
: Screenplay by Chris Weitz, based on the novel Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
: Bill Carraro, Deborah Forte
: Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Sam Elliot, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Daniel Craig, Ben Walker, Jack Shepherd, Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas

There are such lovely, lovely words in
The Golden Compass. I’ve prepared for this review simply by noting down as many of them as I can: alethiometer, aeronaut, dæmon; and the names: Pantalaimon, Iorek Byrnison, Lyra Belacqua. The language at work in this adaptation of Northern Lights, first of the His Dark Materials trilogy of fantasy novels written by Phillip Pullman, is glorious in its melody. How often does the simple sound of a word ignite the imagination and stir the heart? Admit – even if you don’t know what an “alethiometer” is, you want to know, don’t you?

But it is more than the language which is lovely, it is the thought. This is a story about the hunger for discovery and knowledge, about how tantalizing the universe’s mysteries are, and about facing those mysteries with courage, loyalty to one’s friends, and pluck. Pullman crafts his stories in the humanistic tradition of Asimov, unapologetically celebrating thought and reason as our greatest assets, and the key to our heroine’s triumphs. It is the villains that see questioning and curiosity as a troublesome threat to their authority.

For its language, and ideas, and its visual splendor,
The Golden Compass is an enchanting adventure once it really gets in gear. It isn’t that way immediately. In its first half, it looks designed rather than grown, and lacking in confidence about which story thread to grab onto. Because it is not as universally familiar as the Lord of the Rings, whose success studio New Line nakedly hopes to replicate, it has considerable difficulty sorting out what we need to know and catching us up in events while making it known to us. It is hobbled in this by its fear of anyone drawing the parallels evident in Pullman’s work, about what the Magisterium is, and how it rules the population.

What is the Magisterium? What I take from the movie is that they rule much of the human population of their world as an elegant dictatorship, although there are witches in the skies and nomadic Gyptians on the seas free of their dominion. I also take that the notion, proposed by the explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), that there are other worlds parallel to our own, is disturbing enough to the order of things that agents of the Magisterium are attempting to murder him. Which powerful, organized bodies that reminds us of, the ones that might capitalize on the ignorance of people and try to foist restrictive answers to the mysteries of the Beyond, the movie leaves it to us to decide. This robs it of some connective tissue – the book is more specific, and less afraid to speak its mind about such things.

Asriel speculates that an enchanted substance called “Dust” flows from other worlds into theirs, and then into people through their dæmons, talking animals which are both their souls and their lifetime companions. This idea alone is a treasure, that every person can see, talk to, even play with, their inner feelings and wishes and dreams. It also creates whole new categories of fear, because what would you be without your dæmon?

The corollary to this idea is equally inspiring – that the dæmons of children are shapeshifters, able to become any number of animals. Only in adolescence do they harden and become a single animal for the rest of your days. One wonders what Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) went through to freeze her dæmon into a snarling golden monkey.

Young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), does not know quite who Mrs. Coulter is, but she can sense that this woman is important, and that other grown-ups are wary about her. They are wary enough that they won’t interfere when Mrs. Coulter wants to take Lyra away. Lyra is a ward of a college, a girl of bottomless spirit and inquisitiveness, and spends her days in games with her best friend Roger (Ben Walker) and her still-shifting dæmon Pantalaimon (voiced by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore). The kids outside the university are spreading fearful stories of the Gobblers, who have been snatching children in the night. And there do seem to be less children around these days.

And it is to Lyra, on the eve of her departure, that one of the school’s elders entrusts the last alethiometer: a device powered by Dust that can answer any question you pose it – provided that you understand its symbols. Her possession of this treasure, a single artifact proving that there’s more to the world than the Magisterium claims, and has the potential to reveal what they’re up to, leads to an ever-expanding spectacle of chases and battles and fantastical creatures.

And that’s when The Golden Compass, at every point a visual triumph, truly fulfills its all-around potential, as Lyra travels to the icy north, and meets two characters that are conceived and executed to perfection. One is Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut-for-hire who cruises the skies in a dirigible ship. He is played by Sam Elliot, who comes across as like a cowboy even when he is not, strictly speaking, playing a cowboy. His sparkling conviction about this fantasy grounds it and helps it find its tone.

The other character is Iorek Byrnison, a polar bear from a proud tribe of warriors, who lives in shame because he has been separated from his armor, which in this world is as important to a bear as a human’s dæmon. Byrnison is voiced by the once-and-hopefully-future-Gandalf, Sir Ian McKellen, and the majesty of his voice, the way he tells his tale of woe with self-pitying rage, then regal ferocity, will wet your eyes whenever he speaks. To the point of his appearance I was simply intrigued and admiring; from then forward I was roused, fully invested in his fate, and Lyra’s as well.

Dakota Blue Richards is preternaturally good in a central role that would test any actor, child or adult. She can be bright, and rambunctious, even clever and duplicitous, and yet in moments that flash by you realize that this is still just a little girl, frightened and uncertain, aware that the grown-up world is much larger and more complex than any she’s ever considered before. But she faces it unflinchingly, and that is both the soul of The Golden Compass and its message – that there will always be unknowns that worry and threaten us, and isn’t going to be exciting and grand coming to know them?


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