Chris Weitz | 113 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG-13
This adaptation of the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materals trilogy (known as Northern Lights in the UK, but adopting the US title for the film — unlike Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s actually more appropriate) received quite the critical drubbing on its cinematic release, and wasn’t a huge success at the US box office either, which has cast doubt on the prospects of the following two instalments ever being produced. Which is a shame, because this is actually a fine family fantasy film.
The requisite elements are present and correct: a well-realised alternate world, engaging heroes, slightly camp villains, mysterious items, mysterious backstories, a globe-trotting quest, talking non-human characters, a couple of action sequences and casual doses of spectacle. The latter was something that worried me going into the film, in fact, as the CGI looked dreadful in the trailer. When it won the Oscar I really couldn’t understand how, but now having seen the film — and in high definition to boot — it was, to my surprise, mostly exemplary. There are weak patches, of course (Mrs Coulter’s monkey being the main one), but the majority is either appropriately realistic or in a suitable style enough that it didn’t matter. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” as they say; or indeed a film by its trailer.
Another key sticking point for me was the discarding of the books’ religious elements, which is far too atheistical for most Americans (not that I’ve actually read the books yet, but I always enjoy a good bit of Christian baiting). The filmmakers have found an appropriate way around this however: there’s a subtext, blatant to the intelligent viewer, which carries such views. It will like whoosh over the heads of those who would’ve been offended by it, which is surely the point. Nonetheless, the lack of commercial success suggests that the stir it had already caused served to cement it as “the anti-Christian film” in too many people’s minds. Or perhaps it was merely that too few had heard of the books? Or there’s always those variable reviews…
Leading the cast as Lyra, Dakota Blue Richard’s accent seems forced and occasionally grates, but really speaking she’s pretty good (pun retrospectively intended). The rest of the cast make a good account of themselves, though the likes of Daniel Craig, Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee were clearly cast in readiness for the intended sequels. Ian McKellen is as good value as ever and the rest of the voice-only actors offer able support. Nicole Kidman never really gets the chance to unleash her full evil potential however.
In fact, therein lies probably the film’s primary weakness. While Golden Compass does work in its own right, it’s as much Part One of a trilogy as Fellowship of the Ring: at the end you feel curiously fulfilled, even though there’s clearly a lot of tale left to tell. I can only hope that the muted success it achieved is enough to get the continuing and concluding parts made, though that seems increasingly, disappointingly, unlikely.