The Golden Compass

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The Golden Compass
Review (-/10)
(By Paul Fischer)

Based on author Philip Pullman's novel, 'The Golden Compass' is a fantasy adventure, set in an alternative world where people's souls manifest themselves as animals, talking bears fight wars, and Gyptians and witches coexist.

At the center of the story is Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old girl who starts out trying to rescue a friend who's been kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as the Gobblers - and winds up on an epic quest to save not only her world, but ours as well.

The Golden Compass has much within it that is truly awe inspiring, but whether or not that's sufficient for the film to do golden business at the box office, remains to be seen. A faithful adaptation of the first of the books, this epic fantasy is a visually sumptuous affair, with sequences that are genuinely impressive.

Director Chris Weitz may lack the experience of making an effects-laden movie such as this, but one can give the director A for effort. He has crafted some monumental set pieces that truly envelops the screen and enhances the cinematic power of the drama.

But his main problem is trying to balance visual spectacle with a true sense of narrative cohesion. For those venturing into the world of Pullman's Dark Materials, Weitz's screenplay lacks the exposition necessary to pull the viewer into this world from the outset, thus creating a degree of confusion and a lack of a clear cohesive vision.

In addition, the film's open-ended finale is a risky move by a studio that thinks audiences will automatically flock to this as they did with Lord of the Rings, but the novels lack either the iconic classic status of Rings or the mass commercialism of Harry Potter, so assuming that a trilogy is a foregone conclusion is a huge risk.

Much has been said of the film's anti-Christian perspective, but while Pullman's literary treatise may be so, the film adaptation is a safer, cinematic experience. Of course one can read anything into the movie, but it's simply a fantasy about a child's own emotional growth.

It is on that level, that Weitz succeeds with admirable foresight, due to his casting of Dakota Blue Richards. In her first outing, Richards delivers a mature, profound and ferociously adept performance. It is her character that is the heart and soul of these novels, and the film would have floundered from the outset had Weitz not cast the film with clear precision.

On that level, Compass soars, and this young actress is an exquisite dynamo who holds her own against her adult costars. She is well supported by a fabulously cruel and luminous Nicole Kidman as the villainous Mrs. Coulter. Her initial entrance is quite dazzling and the Australian actress is every bit the movie star, as she dlivers a delightfully chilling performance.

Daniel Craig has relatively little to do in the first film, but is fabulously heroic, proving his diversity as an actor, and there are some nice turns by Sam Elliott, Eva Green and Brit veterans Tom Courtney and Derek Jacobi. Special effects are impressive, especially a stunning polar bear fight that is riveting, to say the least. The film is beautifully lensed by cinematographer Henry Braham and Alexandre Desplat's music is evocative.

While Golden Compass could do with additional expository elements and a tighter finale, there are many impressive elements to the film. It is certainly captivating and cinematically elegant, with top-notch performances, but whether that's enough to sustain the beginning of a new franchise, is another question.

Time and box office will tell, but it does show that the man who made a career redefining adolescent sex comedies, has developed into a mature and gifted filmmaker. One can only forward to what he does with a second film.


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