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Golden Compass on blu-ray


The Golden Compass
cast: Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, and Sam Elliott

director: Chris Weitz

109 minutes (PG) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
EIV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
Only slightly eclipsed by J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy was for many the thinking person's Harry Potter. That it should follow the latter onto the big screen was inevitable with the current feeding frenzy for all things fantastic. While Lord Of The Rings set the standard, and the Harry Potter films have become commendably darker as the series continued, other fantasy films have suffered by comparison. The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, didn't live up to its hype, and has left much riding on Prince Caspian, and Eragon proved more turkey than dragon. The Golden Compass had a rocky start when it was suggested that the film version would play down the anti-clerical thread of its source material Northern Lights. The Vatican and its purple tentacles throughout the world had already given Pullman and his publishers their services as publicity agents by a concerted campaign of criticism, a boost to sales that the author was quick to acknowledge. Humanists everywhere could amuse themselves at the Catholic Church's stance; its aggrieved response to the trilogy was a tacit acknowledgement that the Church itself was recognisable as the villainous self-serving Magesterium, furthermore Pullman's conceit was not that God did not exist rather that our world was created and then ignored, which is a deistic belief system.

New Line Cinema turned down a script by Tom Stoppard and opted for the unsolicited effort from eventual director Chris Weitz (About A Boy). That New Line or Weitz should be leery of a campaign by religious organisations were proven to be justified when, despite suggestions that the film would shy away from outright criticism of organised religion, the big battalions of the Catholic Church and the religious right lined up to pound the as yet unspecified intentions of the script. Meanwhile the novice director Weitz had an attack of cold feet about directing a fantasy epic and bailed-out of the production.

Giving advice about the potential film version of his marvellous many-layered novel The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, author Milan Kundera suggested to director Philip Kaufman that it would be best to concentrate on the love story at its centre. Weitz was replaced on Compass by documentary filmmaker Anand Tucker (And When Did You Last See Your Father?) who suggested that thematically the story could be narrowed to the character Lyra's search for a family, a view endorsed by Pullman. Inevitably, New Line searching for a CGI epic responded negatively to the intimate focus proposed by Tucker, and the boy Weitz was soon back in the picture. Commendably, Pullman has been supportive of whoever has held the reins, seemingly aware that when a novel becomes a film it is no longer the property of its author. J.K. Rowling had to engage in a duel to the death with Steven Spielberg over creative control of Harry Potter, perhaps fortunately given that director's weakness for sentimentality, although the early films' "well done, Hagrid" endings should have carried a health warning for diabetics. Fans of original material are notoriously cranky, when Queen of Australia, Nicole Kidman was announced for the part of the villainous Mrs Coulter for Compass, reluctantly, she didn't want to play a villain until Pullman wrote to her, fans took objection to her blonde hair, Mrs Coulter was after all brunette. Pullman continued to be worth his weight in good publicity to the producers by announcing that Kidman's casting had made him aware of his own error, Mrs Coulter of course had to be blonde.

The film opens in Oxford with some regrettable Dick Van Dyke 'gorblimey' Oliver Twist adaptation accents. Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is a ward of Jordan College, where she saves Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, Casino Royale) from assassination by the Magesterium. Asriel has found evidence for the existence of 'dust', elementary particles from a parallel universe which enter humans through their daemons. Daemons are the physical manifestations of the human soul existing outside a person's body in the form of an animal, rather like the old idea of a witch's familiar. Asriel wins funding to travel to the north to continue his investigation of dust and parallel worlds. Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman, The Invasion) arrives and retains Lyra as her assistant for a journey to the north, the pair clash, and Lyra discovers that Mrs Coulter is behind the abduction of children, which has seen the disappearance of her friends Roger and Billy.

Lyra has been given an alethiometer, the 'golden compass' of the title, by the master of Jordan College, and, over the course of the picture, begins to learn how to use it to answer questions, although a measure of ambiguity remains. Escaping from Mrs Coulter, Lyra teams up with the nomadic Gyptians, an aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott, Ghost Rider), and Iorek an armoured bear, to follow Asriel to the north and rescue the stolen children. In the north, she discovers Mrs Coulter presiding over a research facility experimenting on children to sever the link between human and daemon. There are revelations about Lyra's family, a duel between armoured bears, and a pitched battle between Magesterium guards, and Gyptians aided by flying witches. The film sets up the following instalment of the story by having Lyra, Lee, Iorek, and witch queen Serafina (Eva Green, Casino Royale) continue north on the trail of Asriel.

Poor box office returns in the USA have brought the completion of the trilogy into question; however international reception was very good and may see the story being continued. The film as a whole was a commendable effort given the complexity of the story, but the sheer weight of information, and the refusal to compromise with the text and the desire to produce an intelligent literate picture may have made the film difficult for an audience unfamiliar with the source material. The performances and effects were good and the film would reward subsequent viewings.

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