The Golden Compass: a film review by Sasha Cooper (aka Jinx at HH)
It’s 1982. Several strangers sit in a darkened room, pondering a question that will set the tone of American cinema for the next quarter of a century: what the heck was “Blade Runner” about?
It’s an understandable question; none of the characters do what they’re supposed to and then the credits roll. It must be a difficult question, since it takes almost a decade to answer definitively.
The answer comprises subsequent audience responses to the version without explanatory dialogue and the overwhelming critical response to the director’s cut they prompted. It goes something like, ‘we don’t know and for the love of L. Ron Hubbard, keep it that way.’ Driven by this answer, Warner Bros. finally remove the explanatory voiceover and the artificial happy ending from the film.
Naturally no question that takes ten years to answer will give the modern American film industry ten seconds pause. Especially not when imminent sequels are at stake.
Thus while “Northern Lights” starts with the spellbinding line, ‘Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen,’ the film starts with a disembodied narrative. Chief elf witch Liv Tyler Serafina Pekkala thoughtfully exposits any sense of mystery away.
So it turns out that her world, with its dæmons, witches and brutal religious Magisterium overseeing Oxford, isn’t our own. (Where would we be without you, Serafina?)
What’s more, she helpfully tells us, the dæmons of Lyra’s world are actually manifestations of the souls that inhabit our bodies in this one. Hang on – wasn’t this film a vicious and controversial attack on all religion, according to the Christian Right?
The obvious response – ‘what isn’t?’ – is only half-valid. Flabbergastingly, and in a world-first, the director has toned down controversial elements.
In fact the book never specifies the precise relation of dæmons to their people. A character from our world suggests in Book Two a link between our idea of souls and the dæmons, but we’re not required to believe him.
It’s more illuminating to see the creatures as simply a part of her innermost self distilled into physical form. In Lyra’s world, Jiminy Cricket would have been just another dæmon.
You might have heard complaints about the film’s overly sanitised violence, and when a two-tonne bear cleaves off the jaw of another without spilling a drop of blood, they’re hard to deny. But oversimplifying the human-dæmon link eviscerates the most profound instance of violence in the whole tale.
In the film you can blink and miss it – Lyra makes a throwaway (though unmistakably Significant) remark about it being unpleasant to touch someone’s dæmon. When someone later grabs her dæmon she looks pained and then faints.
But inhabitants of Pullman’s original world carefully avoid interacting with others people’s dæmons at all. To an alternate Oxfordian, allowing someone else to touch your dæmon is the height of intimacy. To really abuse the point, a dæmon assuming a rigid form is a major symbol of its person’s transition to adulthood. So when an orderly manhandles eleven-year-old Lyra’s Pantalaimon, it’s barely metaphorical to call to call the act sexual assault. Similarly, slicing off a child’s demon is… self-explanatory.
So director Chris Weitz’s determination to neuter his own child surpasses even his antagonists’ desire to neuter theirs. Bizarrely, a prominent character, whose corpse should be festering in the arctic wilderness by the end, survives to see the credits roll. I don’t envy him his role in part two, but maybe Weitz thought the film needed a happier ending.
Ah, how far we’ve come since “Blade Runner”.
This review would benefit from ending here. “The Golden Compass” is an atrocious adaptation of an excellent book, much to nobody’s surprise. But for a sceptics’ journal, a review probably needs some balance. So, grudgingly, I’ll have to admit that I quite enjoyed the film.
Sadly, this reflects more on the quality of all the other films of the last few years than GC’s.
The film, its CG characters and all-star cast list are all quite pretty. Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee appear, exude their customary gravitas and then melt away. Nicole Kidman fails to exude botox despite having a smile that could slice through bank vaults. The effects are equally as pretty as in the last 50 movies you’ve seen. Why the Magisterium decided to adopt the MacDonald’s M for a logo isn’t clear, but I suppose it’s as good a marketing tool in one world as the next. And it fits with the film’s adherence to its industry’s ‘so tasty you’ll be chemically addicted’ ethos.
Unfortunately, the most important effects – the dæmons – are feeble. They should sound unobtrusive, semi-telepathic. Instead Freddie Highmore, the squeaky voice of Lyra’s dæmon, rakes the atmosphere of every scene he speaks in. One would think the advantage of having computer generated child-entities onscreen is that you don’t have to suffer the real thing. Why not someone like the Simpsons’ Nancy Cartwright for the role, if it had to sound childlike? Or, you know, a child who can act well.
Similarly, where they should look like animals (suggesting a certain kingdom that might have been suitable for the roles), the dæmons look every bit like computer graphics. But wait… Chris Weitz can clarify: ‘They really are part human, and they behave in subtle anthropomorphic ways. We wanted them to feel different than photo-realistic animals. The light hits them in a different way.’
My misinterpretation, sorry. They were supposed to resemble cheap plastic merchandising opportunities. Chipper effects all round, then. Fortunately, the screenwriter has obliterated most of the story. So the effects don’t fail to get in the way of anything important.
So in summary, “The Golden Compass” is insulting and yet inoffensive, bland but obvious and yet sometimes incomprehensible, but for all that it’s actually quite mediocre. If you haven’t read the book go and watch it. Badum-bum-bum baaa, you’ll be loving it.
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