The Golden Compass - Heart of Darkness

The Golden Compass

Nicole Kidman loved author Philip Pullman’s best-selling fantasy trilogy but she initially turned down a part in the much anticipated film adaptation, The Golden Compass. Miles Fielder finds out why

Everyone wanted Nicole Kidman to play Mrs Coulter. From the makers of the blockbuster film adaptation of The Golden Compass through the millions of fans of Philip Pullman’s bestselling fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials to the author of the novels himself, the general consensus was Kidman should portray the tale’s beautiful and beguiling villainess Marisa Coulter.

Kidman, who’s currently back in her native Australia shooting World War II-set epic Australia with her Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann, says, ‘I was working with a producer on [psychological chiller] Birth and she told me New Line [the Hollywood production company responsible for The Lord of the Rings trilogy] had just acquired the rights to the Pullman novels, and that the author had sent me autographed copies of the three books because they were going to make a film and he didn’t want anyone but me to play Mrs Coulter. So I gave the books to my kids and then proceeded to read them myself.

‘They’re extraordinary. I think they’re on a par with The Lord of the Rings, because Philip’s created this other world with these very strong characters and extreme things. Then, about five years later, New Line came back with a script and a director that worked and offered me Mrs Coulter.’

For anyone who’s been residing in another universe for the past 12 years, His Dark Materials – comprising The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights to give it its UK as opposed to US title), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – was published between 1995 and 2000. The action in the critically and commercially successful trilogy unfolds across multiple universes populated by witches, spectres and daemons (animal manifestations of the human soul). The heavily allegorical storyline, which was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and takes in metaphysics, philosophy and theology, has generated considerable controversy over its criticism of organised religion, specifically Catholicism (fictionalised as an authoritarian organisation known as he Church).

The Golden Compass is set in an alternate retro-futuristic ‘steampunk’ universe resembling Victorian Britain, and it introduces the series’ 12-year-old female protagonist Lyra Belacqua (played in the film by Brit newcomer Dakota Blue Richards). Together with a fellowship of supernatural companions, Lyra undertakes a quest to her world’s icy northern reaches to rescue a friend from wicked Church scientists who have been kidnapping children in order to conduct experiments on a mysterious and much sought after elementary particle known as Dust. Complicating matters for Lyra are the involvement of her estranged parents, the domineering Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) and the duplicitous Mrs Coulter, who works for the Church.

‘My first response was, “No, I don’t want to do it!” Marisa Coulter is a villain. At this stage in my life I’m looking to do things that are much more warm and fuzzy,’ says Kidman, who turned 40 in June and who recently got married again (to musician Keith Urban) while continuing to co-parent the now teenage son and daughter she adopted with ex-husband Tom Cruise. Kidman has played her share of ice queens and neurotics, in To Die For, The Portrait of A Lady, Birth and The Stepford Wives to name but four instances but she explains how she was eventually won over: ‘Philip Pullman wrote me a gorgeous letter and convinced me to do it.’

‘A lot of the time,’ she adds, ‘you have to choose the things you don’t want to do, because there’s a reason you are pulling away and so it becomes cathartic to do it. I’ve played characters that have done despicable things, but rarely do you judge the character you’re playing. You have to work from within and try to find the motivations, and you hope that her humanity bleeds through. So the reason I was able to play Marisa Coulter was I felt this is a woman who had to embrace being a mother, and in that sense she’s one of the most archetypal mother figures in terms of literature. It’s almost like a Greek tragedy. I had to fight to show the heart of the woman, because there is a heart in her and there are motives and reasons you’ll discover as the story goes along.’

Having finally committed to the part, Kidman went one better and brought onboard one of her acting chums. ‘The producers were asking me about English actors to play Lord Asriel, and I told them I thought Daniel Craig was one of the best actors of his generation,’ says Kidman. ‘We’d done The Invasion together and we clicked, and I’d seen him on stage and knew he could do it. And we’re very different in this film, because our relationship and our characters are very different.’

You can say that again. In The Invasion (the recent Bodysnatchers remake) they’re romantically involved while fleeing the alien pod people. In The Golden Compass they’re ex-lovers serving opposing forces in a cosmic war. What the films have in common, however, is troubled production histories. After New Line acquired the film rights to Pullman’s fantasy trilogy in 2002, acclaimed playwright and scriptwriter Tom Stoppard was commissioned to write the screenplay. He did, but it was junked when American director Chris Weitz was hired in 2004 and decided to write his own screenplay. Having written it, Weitz (best known for American Pie and About A Boy) quit as director, allegedly after having witnessed Peter Jackson attempting to marshal armies while making The Two Towers. British director Anand Tucker replaced him, but he was then sacked by New Line, who wooed Weitz back in 2006 and gave him a $180 million budget to make The Golden Compass (twice that of The Fellowship of the Ring).

And then the trouble really started. Fearing ‘perceived anti-religiosity’ and subsequently an outcome exactly the inverse of the extraordinary box office success America’s bible belt filmgoers blessed Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ with, New Line demanded all direct references to God (whose equivalent in the books is known as the Authority) and to religion be erased from The Golden Compass. Weitz obliged, and opted for more subtle interpretations of the books’ villains, and Pullman gave his blessing to the changes. That wasn’t enough for America’s biggest religious activist organisation, the Catholic League, however, which recently called for a boycott of the film. All of this hoopla prompted Kidman to enter the fray. She said, ‘The Catholic Church is part of my essence. I wouldn’t be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.’

Hedging their bets, New Line has already commissioned a screenplay for The Subtle Knife. But further adaptations of Pullman’s books are dependent on the financial success of the first film. Despite her initial reservations, Kidman is keeping her fingers crossed. She says, ‘This is a trilogy and that was one of the big draws. It’s unusual to play a character over three films. If you look at Marisa Coulter’s arc over the three books, that’s when you realise she’s a great character. In the first one you only get a glimpse of where she is going. The first time you’ll get a taste of Mrs Coulter, but you don’t get to fully understand her until you play out all three stories, and I really hope we get to do that.’

The Golden Compass is out on Wed 5 Dec.

The Golden Compass

  • 3 stars
  • 2007
  • US / UK
  • 1h 45min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Chris Weitz
  • Cast: Dakota Blue Richards, Freddie Highmore, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Ben Walker

Based on the novel by Phillip Pullman, this fantasy adventure follows Lyra (Richards), who has been entrusted with the last remaining 'alethiometer', or golden compass, which she must keep from the power-crazed Magisterium. The world Weitz has created is beautifully designed and fascinating, but choppily structured and…

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