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Film Review: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass (2007; Directed by Chris Weitz)

I got a posse. And a cute little hood.

A neutered, choppy adaptation of a potent and iconic book, Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass is, to be fair, probably not entirely a Chris Weitz film. New Line’s first post-LOTR kick at the fantasy franchise can shows little storytelling ingenuity, although its gleaming steampunk design is often incredibly pretty.

Phillip Pullman’s books are unwieldy narrative beasts, barreling ahead with the clumsy near-grace of an armored bear. He’s rarely subtle, fond of exposition and explication, and entirely reliant on repetitive deus ex machina to unfold his tale. But then, so was Tolkien, if one recalls, but in the hands of a talented filmmaker, the Professor’s even more unwieldy and anachronistic narrative was given force, conviction, excitement, and gravitas. Chris Weitz is not an untalented filmmaker, but his best films (About A Boy being perhaps paramount) are marked more by observant character and small, clever visual touches than by the sweeping, excessive gestures and assured touch with a large canvas required to pull off an expensive fantasy epic. And, as the penultimate fight sequence demonstrates, he also has little idea how to shoot a battle scene to keep it from feeling like a repetitive series of snuffings-out.

Still, it’s possible he could have pulled it off, were it not for the apparent interference from New Line, who never saw an opportunity to dilute the novel’s vital thematic elements it didn’t like, and likewise couldn’t resist aligning it with their most famous fantasy production at every turn. Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen both appear at New Line’s behest, and add little but vague echoes of Middle Earth to the proceedings. McKellen is a demigod, sure, but I can’t see any other actor’s interpretation of Iorek Byrnisson being worse than his phoned-in performance.

Besides the admittedly impressive visual touches, only a few performances grant any life to the proceedings. Though Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig are solid casting choices for Coulter and Asriel, neither is given a tremendous amount to do. Dakota Blue Richards does seem to have Lyra down, for whatever that’s worth, but it’s the more incidental, supporting characters that give the film some of its best moments. Tom Courtenay lets exposition roll naturally off his tongue in that way that fine actors do, but it’s Sam Elliott’s Lee Scoresby, with his weary, wit-laced drawl and colourful Texas slang, who steals every moment he’s onscreen.

Tell me, child... do I need a new forehead?

Perhaps more unfortunate than unengaging characters or the recurrent suggestions of hobbitry is the way in which the film’s invisible hands choke off Pullman’s controversial but vigorously-defended themes of secularity and anti-dogmatism. It only really becomes apparent once his trilogy reaches its climax in The Amber Spyglass, but His Dark Materials is, more than anything, an elaborate and eminently convincing argument for the viability of atheism as a satisfying, all-encompassing belief system. Concerned about grosses in spiritually-immature America, New Line spinelessly gutted any overt religious referentiality from the narrative, apparently without recognizing that religious mythos is in the marrow of the plot. Pullman’s trilogy is rife with action and fantastic wonder, sure, but what separates it from the fantasy glut is its massive themes, its complex and often poetic grappling with the Big Questions. These themes aren’t just elaborate intellectual window-dressing, they are the rhyme and reason for the diverting, audience-exploiting plot in the first place. Without its metaphysical inquiry and spiritual mythology, The Golden Compass is an episodic fantasy adventure with stock characters and cliched plot steps, and that’s, basically, what this film turns out to be.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. July 1, 2015 at 9:24 pm

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