Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Golden Compass

directed by Chris Weitz

The Golden Compass poster  
In Oxford, Lyra lives in two worlds. On the one hand she's a young lady inhabiting the prim and stuffy halls of Jordan College. On the other, she's a grubby street kid who enjoys brawling and breaking rules. There's no doubt about which side of her life Lyra prefers.

When Lyra sneaks into a part of the College she's not supposed to be in, she witnesses something that will change her future. A visitor from the Magisterium poisons some wine intended for her uncle, Lord Asriel. So she remains hidden in a wardrobe in order to stop him from drinking it and find out what will happen next.

Asriel has travelled north to find out more about Dust, a mysterious substance that's invisible under normal conditions. Dust is a taboo subject, the kind of thing that causes scholars and clergymen to mutter about heresy. It's certainly not discussed in front of children. Lyra is told more than once not to ask questions about it, which is of course the only way to interest her in any academic subject at all.

However, Lyra has more immediate concerns. Street children from around the country have gone missing without trace, never to be seen again. People are blaming the Gobblers, although no-one seems to know who these bogey-men are and why they are taking children. When Lyra's friend Roger, a kitchen boy, disappears, she vows to rescue him.

Nicole Kidman is superb as the elegant Mrs Coulter. By turns playful and charming, then overbearing and merciless, Mrs Coulter is a law unto herself. As for the supposed authorities, the Magisterium, these people are depicted as a group of severe men with evil intent. In Northern Lights they are explicitly named as Church authorities (although not specifically Catholic or Protestant), whereas the film is not so bold. This film alludes to their religious nature through their clothing and the style of their surroundings. So what some have seen as Pullman's anti-clerical views in the novels are at least a little watered-down in the movie, in the sense that it's only implied that the Magisterium represent the Christian church.

In fact there are many ways the book and the film diverge. Roles have been exchanged, and the order in which certain things happen has been moved around. Perhaps the biggest change to the plot was the fact that the final three chapters of the book have not been included. This actually works quite well, because it means the film isn't overlong yet it still ends in a satisfactory place, just after an almighty battle. This might cause a few problems for the next film in this series, but there's no law that says one whole book must be made into one whole film, particularly when fantasy books are usually too long for this to work.

Like almost all films that have been condensed from books, The Golden Compass suffers from oversimplification, and from too much of the source material being cut out. It boils down the issues into a simple matter of free will versus doing exactly as the authorities tell you. Children who are too young to grasp concepts such as the soul or original sin may struggle a little with this film. Yet it has enough big-budget glitz and action for this to be a side issue.

The Golden Compass doesn't have anything like as much depth as Northern Lights does, and it's significantly less demanding. That's not the same thing as saying that this is a dumb film, since (unfortunately) by the lowest-common-denominator standards of modern blockbuster filmmaking it's positively intellectual. What it is, undeniably, is an effects spectacular. There are harsh icy wastes, daemons which constantly change form, flying witches, hordes of armoured bears, flying machines, Gyptians, the works. Even the way cars or carriages work is different from out world, and picturesquely so. It's a movie with all the eye candy you could hope for.

Dakota Blue Richards brings Lyra to life with a blend of unladylike manners and pint-sized bravado. The way she interacts with all the other characters makes The Golden Compass fun to watch and worthwhile as entertainment whether or not you've read the book.

Film Details

Year: 2007

Categories: Films

  Kids     Fantasy

Classification: PG

If you like this, try:

Northern Lights (His Dark Materials trilogy) cover    

Northern Lights (His Dark Materials trilogy) by Philip Pullman
The first book of the His Dark Materials series.

4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Chris Weitz