The Golden Compass
JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and JK Rowling may have all the initials and most of the sales but fair-minded fantasy fans know deep down that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is the genre’s true shining light. Astoundingly imaginative, intellectually demanding (inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost) yet eminently readable, the books’ acolytes approach this Hollywood adaptation with trepidation. Could such a complex, provocative series - atheist Pullman once claimed the novels were about 'killing God' – survive intact an encounter with God-fearing American values?
The answer is a disappointing, yet unsurprising, No. Pullman’s political-religious body The Magisterium is now a generic power-crazed entity, out to wrest control of the last remaining 'alethiometer' or golden compass, a mystical seer-like clockwork device entrusted to 12-year old wild child, Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards). Lyra’s world is a parallel one to ours, similar in geography but with added witches, armoured polar bears and 'daemons', inseparable animal manifestations of one’s soul. Her quest into the frozen North to find kidnapped children involves her with no-nonsense explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), seductive yet shady envoy Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and practically all the British thesps overlooked by the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises.
In comparison to its weighty blockbuster rivals, The Golden Compass is frustratingly fleeting. Well under two hours, it’s a film that demands the extra detail and development for Pullman’s endeavours. What remains is a beautifully designed, still fascinating world, choppily structured and studded with often-clunky set pieces. While the film predictably omits the novel’s jaw-droppingly dark climax, to waste so many brilliant conceits – the well-rendered digital daemons are more cute critters than spiritual essences – is tantamount to heresy. Those new to Pullman’s worlds might just be tempted; everyone else will experience a bruising fall from grace.
General release, from Wed 5 Dec.