I have made no bones about that fact that I adore the His Dark Materials trilogy. It is a thrilling, intellectually satisfying story with vibrant characters and what feels like a truly original point of view (OK, I realise its probably not, but in my limited fantasy experience it felt like a bolt from the blue).
I realise the difficulties that The Golden Compass would have in being adapted. The exposition alone would be a nightmare. But if The Lord of the Rings films proved anything, it was that endless exposition (and lets face it, the first 40 minutes of Fellowship is nothing but exposition) need not be boring.
I can pretty easily point to the two areas which really doom this film;
1) Chris Weitz – I have nothing but love for Weitz’ work on both American Pie and About a Boy. The latter in particular, is a beautiful example of taking the strengths of a novel and expanding them for the screen. But his script for The Golden Compass feels oddly truncated – a series of events rather than an actual story and with little patience for character. But it is his work as a director which really grates. He has no real visual style, no sense of the epic. He fails utterly to invoke any sense of wonder or menace. Its anonymous, boring work for the most part, leaving the great technical work and especially the actors, all at sea.
2) The running time – Normally I am not a big fan of but numbing running times. But at under 2 hours, The Golden Compass just whistles by, leaving no sense of drama or peril. It is the worst kind of drama in that it is superficially complex, but ultimately uninvolving. Weitz seems so determined to just get the [particulars of the plot in place, that he ignores the importance of the relationships which underpin the book. Even 20 minutes extra would have given the film some room to breathe.
Now these two points are enough for me to pretty much dismiss the film as a disappointment. But, there are some aspects of it which really work;
1) The casting – Kidman has been getting a lot of praise, and she deserves it,. She is a fabulously cold bitch. Sam Elliot, Daniel Craig, Ian McKellen and Freddie Highmore (as the voices of Iorek and Pan) are all superb. But my favourite performance may be from Eva Green who nails Serafina Pekkala perfectly, but is given too little screen time. Dakota Blue Richards is probably the actor who suffers most from Weitz inadequacies. She is very good at projecting Lyra’s toughness and bravery, but is awkward and unconvincing at the more emotional moments.
2) The design work is beautiful throughout – kudos to production and costume designers who create a believable, almost 30s aesthetic for the whole film. Its just a shame that Weitz couldn’t figure out how to show it off better.
3) I was afraid that the daemons would somehow clutter up the screen, but they are nicely done on the whole. The effects work on Coulter’s monkey however is easily the worst – it’s the one area where I distinctly hate the design, but the CGI is also far too cartoony and weightless.
4) The final battle is actually quite stirring – everybody gets to play their part in some way, and it is fast, brutal and very satisfying. In particular, I love how they have designed the movements of the witches, who seem to float like ghosts above the action.
The best scene in the entire film is Lyra’s encounter with the king of the armoured bears, followed by the big bear fight. It’s very well acted by Dakota, and Ian McShane’s vocal work in particular is fantastic. The bear fight is surprisingly violent – it features a killing blow which reminds me very much of what happened to the T-Rex in King Kong. People cheered in the screening I was in, which surprised me.
The more overt religious aspects have been toned down for the film. At one point, Kidman’s character is talking about Dust, when what she actually means is sin, and that slightly muddled theological gambit is not going to make things any clearer to newbies. The real challenge comes in the next two films (if they get made) where the religious aspects will be almost impossible to bowdlerise.
I admit, I find it difficult to predict how those who have not read the books are going to react to this film. The reviews have been all over the place. The two guys who I saw it with last night (and who had not read the books) liked it much more than I did. I think it will do well, but whether or not it will be quite as big as Narnia is debatable. I would love to see The Subtle Knife greenlit, but hopefully with a director and writer who could truly make the material sing. Could they just page Alfonso Cuaron?
Final Thought – I think its madness that they didn’t include the ending of the book. I think The Golden Compass needs to give people a reason to want to go back in 2 years time, and the film just sort of runs out of breath. If they had included the final moments, it would have really given the film a huge boost and arguably have left people wanting so much more.