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Monday, Dec. 17, 2007

More Sparkle, Less Substance

Golden Compass on the silver screen

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December 13, 2007

Chris Weitz's adaptation of Philip Pullman's dark fantasy proves that all that glitters is not gold. The Golden Compass is a dazzling concoction of sophisticated CGI and Hollywood glamour that aims for visual effects rather than depth. That said, it still makes for a pleasantly entertaining two hours of cinema.

Weitz had rather a lot on his plate in adapting such a highly descriptive, densely plotted novel. The settings shift from the austere collegiate confines of Oxford to the vast and desolate expanses of the North Pole, with many exotic stops in between. There is a rich cast of characters with convoluted names that would make Tolstoy blanch. The weighty polarities that it touches upon, between free will vs. destiny, atheism vs. organized religion, are hardly common material for a holiday blockbuster. Add to this the idea of daemons—an externalized embodiment of the soul in the form of an animal with which each character is endowed.

Weitz can certainly be applauded for competently compacting the novel's dense action in a film that keeps its pace and the viewer's attention throughout. Where it fails is in creating human drama as a counterpoint to the action, and in coming up with a more original means of telling the story. Rarely, if ever, does it rise above the conventions typical of films of this genre.

The story centers around Lyra Belacqua, an impetuous 10-year-old with the gift of gab and an irrepressible sense of adventure. Caught between the hard glare of her haughty uncle and the hypnotic gaze of the cruel and beautiful Mrs. Coulter, Lyra and her family find themselves embroiled in a controversy that threatens to shake the foundations of the religious autocracy in which they live. On the one side is the Magisterium, a sinister and far-reaching religious authority that aims to control the hearts and minds of the populace by targeting the peripheral members of society and using their kids as lab rats. On the other is Lyra's affluent uncle, Lord Asriel, an ambitious heretic who hopes to strike a mortal blow to the heart of the establishment. Both sides are concerned with a substance called "dust," an elementary particle that each believes is a physical embodiment of original sin.

The core ideas of daemons and dust are made rather short work of in a brief voice-over at the beginning of the film and a number of cryptic references frugally peppered throughout. Perhaps Weitz is waiting to elucidate them further in the next episode of the trilogy. More likely, though, the religious controversy the book has sparked has forced him to tread carefully around the book's subversive themes. Instead he's focused on the visuals. The battle scene between the armored bears is spectacular; the formidable ranks of Tartar soldiers come eerily to life. The seedy underbelly of the urban metropolis is captured through the eyes of a child, if all too briefly. The scantily dressed witches swoop seamlessly from the sky.

The casting is stellar and largely spot-on. Eva Green is sexy and serene as the leader of a witch clan. Cast as Lord Asriel, Daniel Craig crackles with leonine grace. A newcomer in the role of Lyra, Dakota Blue Richards conjures up the wily nature of her character, though perhaps not her ferocity. In some ways, however, it seems the entire film serves to offset the brilliance of its brightest star. Nicole Kidman shimmers in her role as Mrs. Coulter, the perfect though somewhat predictable ice-queen. If only more time had been spent lending the film a more cohesive and personal vision and less on Kidman's outfits, it might have resulted in a film with sparkle as well as substance.