Thanks mostly to its 1920s parallel universe set design, I confess I liked the film more than I expected to. Many high level stars circle around the central orphan child Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Richards), so the film has an amusing playfulness in its casting. Care to see Eva Green as a witch? How about a glimpse of Daniel Craig wearing a trim beard and an
With the compressed storyline taken from a Phillip Pullman fantasy novel and its rebellion against organized religion, The Golden Compass flirts with revolt. The oppressive Magisterium government might have correlations with the Catholic Church, but they are hard to notice here. Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, wants to investigate northern magic dust that can connect you to the parallel universes. The Magisterium does not like such heretical research, so one of their functionaries, Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney), tries to poison Asriel’s favorite wine. Fortunately, Lyra warns her uncle just in time. Since New Line cinema didn’t want some Catholic League of Decency banning the film, they’ve greatly reduced Phillip Pullman’s version of the Magisterium to just bits and pieces of menace, mostly Derek Jacobi looking like some Lord of the Inquisition and crying out “Heresy!” at odd moments of the film. Fra Pavel’s chief sign of evil is his atrocious comb-over haircut.
For no particular reason, somebody gives Lyra a nice alethiometer, or golden compass that can tell her the “secret at the heart of things that evade the authorities.” One wearies of children in fantasy storylines who are handed royalty or magical powers without doing anything to deserve it, but Lyra shows spunk and enough conniving intelligence to make her election as the “One” more plausible. She’s whisked off in a dirigible to some city where she learns that Marisa Coulter is an evil henchwoman for the Gobblers, a shady organization devoted to kidnapping children and experimenting on them in some ghastly compound up in the frozen north where you’d expect Santa’s workshop to be. Escaping from Coulter and pursued by Gobblers, Lyra finds refuge with sympathetic Gyptians who take her on a ship to Norroway so she can find a fighting polar bear. The big burly king of the Gyptians, John Faa (Jim Carter), reminded me of some pirate in a Pirates of the
Once in the northern frontier town of
With its daemons, its “particle metaphysics,” and fighting bears who don’t really bleed, The Golden Compass proves willing to throw any fantastic creature into its stew, thereby transforming the Pullman novel into a restrained and yet flamboyant CGI concoction. Intent upon recouping their 180$ million investment, New Line studios don’t really show much courage, but some subversive hint of the novel gets through, and that’s what makes the film watchable.