“The Golden Compass” is trying way to hard to be “Lord of the Rings” rather than embracing the tragic fantasy of His Dark Materials that Philip Pullman created. This is a shame as the movie is still enjoyable and a lot of the casting is spot on, it just misses the point of the book it takes it’s namesake from, which keeps it from being good. Still, as a piece of cinema history it is still worth checking out.
The film was directed and written by Chris Weitz.
The story follows the orphan Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) when she leaves Jordan College in search for her kidnapped friend and the other missing children taken by a mysterious organization.
The Soundtrack – Alexandre Desplat created a memorable soundtrack that captures terror and adventure when it needs to and fully captures the unique steampunk world that the film takes place in. Desplat’s talent is once again on full display here.
The Action – The action is great in this with some wonderful fight sequences from a duel between armored bears to Lyra and her allies against Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium mercenaries who kidnapped the children.
The World – The steampunk world of the book is on full display in this film as we have blimps, guns, steamships, the Magisterium who rules and controls everything, the traveling Gyptians, the mysterious witches, a nation of armored bears and the mysterious “Dust” that connects different realities.
The Gyptians – The Gyptians are great in the film with standout performances being the motherly Ma Costa played by Clare Higgins who steals every scene she is in she is so great and Lord Faa played by Jim Carter who plays the wisened driven leader extremely well. The Gyptians as seafairers and outsiders is captured extremely well in the film.
Lorek – Ian McKellan is amazing as the armored bear seeking to regain his honor. He like Ma Costa, John Faa and Lee Scoresby is one of Lyra’s mentors and protectors and his getting revenge against the corrupt Ragnar to regain his throne is done amazingly. McKellan gives the role so much weight and strength.
Lee Scoresby – Sam Elliot is how I imagined Lee looking in the books and it looks like Philip Pullman did too. I love this reluctant cowboy hero and Elliot gives depth to the scenes he is in as he helps Lyra and Lorek in their missions. I wish we’d gotten more of his history with Lorek though.
Mrs. Coulter – Nicole Kidman is exactly how I imagined Mrs. Coulter looking and she plays the subtle threat really well. We see her love of Lyra but also her self-hatred and inability to fully love in it. She is fine with others dying but not her daughter and all she does is for her own mysterious ends. To some degree she does believe in the Magisterium and the authority though which clearly drives her actions. I wish we could have seen her in all 3 films. Kidman owns this role and we only see bits and pieces of what could have been explored as we never get her backstory.
The Magisterium Council – The council is simply evil and controlling and after power but it works mostly due to how well Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee do as villains seeking to keep the status quo or use knowledge to their own ends. They work as baddies even if the nuance is gone. They are still believers even if it only in their own power, which makes them a good threat in the film.
Lord Asriel – Lord Asriel like Lyra feels toned down in this. He isn’t cold like in the books and show and Daniel Craig feels wasted. When he has the chance to act he is great but besides the beginning the only other major scene with him is an action scene where he gets captured. This is a fascinating character and good actor who deserved better.
Lyra – Lyra when she is active in her story works but for a lot of this is only active as a last resort. She isn’t searching for Roger until she realizes what Mrs. Coulter is doing and she never questions. She is handed the plot on occasion (how to trick the King of the Armored Bears) and rarely feels like she is driving the plot or causing chaos. Dakota Blue Johnson still does okay but the script missed how Lyra is supposed to be an active agent in her story.
Missing Stories – Billy Costa’s death is left ambiguous, we never get how Lee and Lorek know each other, Serafina and Fadar Coram’s tragic past is missing and Mrs. Coulter’s tragic backstory. So much is missing and it takes away so much depth from the story.
Alethiometer / The Golden Compass – I hate how they show reading the Alethiometer. You basically get scenes shown in dust. All the mystery is gone and it plays more into the “telling” rather than “showing” problem the script and film has.
Roger – Roger is the most wooden actor and the script like Lyra forget about him. The character deserved better given how core he is to Lyra and the ending of the first book.
The Dialogue – The dialogue is all exposition and being told the plot and what to do. There is hardly any show in this film and the dialogue is the greatest example of why.
The Ending is a Lie – The ending is hopeful as Lyra is unknowingly taking Roger to his death. This should have never been cut as tragedy is a core part of the series. When I saw the scenes of what could have been I was so dissappointed in the studio for chickening out.
This is such a flawed film that could have been good or even great if it had remained faithful to the books. It shies away from the tragedy that defines the series and wastes an amazing cast because of it. I wanted to see how challenges would shape our characters as it did in the book and show but instead the film stayed safe and missed out on the amazing and tragic trilogy it chose to adapt.
Final Score: 7 / 10 Enjoyable but extremely flawed.