The Golden Compass has had a very difficult path to the screen, with the original director/writer leaving the project, his replacement quitting due to ‘creative differences’, and then Chris Weitz returning to take up the reins once more. Rumours of difficulty with the special effects, the lack of a finished print until just before release and lukewarm reviews made me unsure if I really wanted to even see the film.
I should confess to being a passionate fan of the books, like pretty much everyone who has read them. And I couldn’t see how they would manage to successfully adapt the trilogy (they get harder to bring to life as they go on) – indeed, I wondered if Mr Pullman had deliberately written them so as to be unfilmable. The National Theatre’s triumphant version solved some of the problems by excising the most difficult chunks of the trilogy (primarily Mary Malone and the Mulefa), but any version of the stories is going to stand or fall depending on how successfully they render the daemons – the NT used puppeteers to great effect. If you haven’t read the books, go and do so now, but to explain, most of the characters have a daemon, or a representation of their souls that lives outside them as an animal. Children’s daemons can change shape, but once they reach puberty, the shape of their daemon is fixed. They’re generally a representation of your true character, but can be influenced by your class or profession, for example, all servants are dogs.
And I’m happy to say that the daemons are one of the new film’s great strengths. They’re very believable and keep the characters that we know and love from the books. Pantalaimon (or Pan), Lyra’s daemon, spends a lot of the first book as a mouse in her pocket, but in the film he tends more to a cat or a polecat (actually, I’m not sure what he is in that form but that’s my best guess). Freddie Highmore does an excellent job of voicing him, and we soon come to care for him as much as we do for Lyra. The voice actors for the other daemons are also excellent – Kristen Scott Thomas for Stelmaria and Kathy Bates for Hester, who sounds just as I imagined. And yes, Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey (who has no name and no voice) is every bit as malevolent and menacing as he should be and will make fans of the books shout out loud at the screen.
Lyra in The Golden Compass
And then there are the armoured bears. They’re pretty amazing in the books – but oh boy, are they wonderful in the film! The fight between Iorek Byrison and Ragnar Sturlusson is all you ever imagined and you never ever want to make a Panzerbjörn angry! Ian McShane is perfect to voice Ragnar, but I still have reservations about Ian McKellen as Iorek – it’s not that he’s not good, it’s just that his voice is so recognisable and gives me Gandalf flashbacks.
The humans have to work hard to match up to all this and they do. Nicole Kidman is a wonderfully icy, hissable villain; Daniel Craig has little to do but makes a strong impression while doing it; Eva Green makes for an enigmatic Serafina Pekkala, although her accent makes much of her exposition difficult to understand; and a host of familiar faces continue the Harry Potter tradition and show that Britain’s actors are still the best in the world (standouts are a scarily evil Derek Jacobi and an almost unrecognisable Tom Courtney).
But what a find they made in Dakota Blue Richards. It would have been all too easy to stick some cute Hollywood moppet in the role and ruin it, but she easily manages to convey Lyra’s prickly mix of annoying childishness and cunning maturity. Her accent is somewhat all over the place, but is only a minor irritant in a confident and accomplished debut.
There has been considerable thought put into how Lyra’s world looks and it’s certainly atmospheric and striking, but it still looks made up. It doesn’t look like people ever actually live there and the clothes look like costumes (in contrast to The Lord of the Rings in which it looked as if we were glimpsing a real place). One big disappointment for me was the music, which had phrases very reminiscent of other scores (especially Jurassic Park). At the end of the film is the obligatory song, although as it’s written and performed by Kate Bush, it’s of a higher quality than usual.
If you don’t know the books, you’ll struggle to keep up, although most things are explained. If you do know the books, you’ll be pleased to know that dust makes its presence felt, we travel through a cut from our universe to Lyra’s (giving a taste of the next film), and word alethiometer is used liberally throughout (it’s also referred to as the golden compass, but they don’t shy away from its proper name as we’d feared by the title).
Don’t be put off by the reviews – The Golden Compass is a joyous beginning of Lyra’s story. Hopefully, things will be tighter by the second film, but there is a great deal to enjoy about this one. Not least the armoured bears…