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The Golden Compass (2007)

by on 2012/02/19

“We’ve always tried to acquaint you with the truth.”

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Who’d have thought an effort riddled with kids and animals would not just work, but work so very well? Not me, that’s for sure. And yet we have The Golden Compass, an epic steampunk-pirate-cowboy-fantasy mashup boasting big production values, and bigger ideas, a compelling confection, yet ironically cultish, with little mainstream acceptance.

In an alternate reality divergent from our own 1800s, the industrial age seems directed at realizing magic instead of information. Human souls are shared with familiars, a sentient vocal pet, with a limited ability to metamorphose. Gyptians cross the waters, Witches sail the skies, and “civilization” is ruled by the Magisterium, a blinkered, religious body resorting to poor behaviour as it loses control.

Amid these factions emerges a possible prophesied seer, an orphaned preteen girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards). She has the ability to understand an ancient form of technology, a kind of Ouija-like polygraph, the title’s Golden Compass. It allows her to reveal hidden truths, making her a threat and a target.

Those standing with and against her are played by some formidable big-name actors: Daniel Craig and Eva Green (both of 2006‘s Casino Royale), Sam Elliott (Tombstone), Derek Jacobi (Dead Again), Nicole Kidman (who also appeared with Craig in The Invasion), Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula), and others. Voice-overs for the CGI creatures include Kathy Bates (Titanic), Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Ian McKellen (Fellowship of the Ring and X-Men), Ian McShane (Deadwood), and Kristin Scott Thomas (Mission: Impossible).

The production overall is as impressive as its players. Their world is rendered in a rich, organic fashion, with ambers, sepia tones, and often subtly integrated effects. Director Chris Weitz continues to impress in ways few might have predicted after his frat-boy beginnings, doing American Pie. Even his comparatively sober dramedy, the more recent About a Boy, had little in it to foretell this next stage of progression.

Perhaps his relative newness with a visual-driven project accounts for the rare failing I found in the picture. At certain points, things didn’t “look right”, and it took me a few such reactions to figure out what they had in common. All were scenes set at night, and outdoors, but obviously shot on a stage. The lighting in all was unconvincing, on the deck of a boat, at a camping site, or in the rolling expanses of the Arctic.

There were also moments, only once or twice, when the CGI creatures were lacking, especially when two or more interacted together. Then again, the vast majority of these scenes were winning and viscerally involving. I rarely had to suspend disbelief. I simply forgot they weren’t real.

I understand the filmmaking process was troubled and complex: compromises in adaptation, studio interference, and significant last-minute changes, to say little of its lukewarm reception. Did it leave a bad impression in viewers’ minds? Yes, it ends somewhat abruptly, though nothing compared to The Holy Grail. The real tragedy is it was intended to continue and, at this point, likely will not.

Whether its grim reaper was business, religious pressure, or another unknown cause, the effect is a loss for us all. The Golden Compass’ greatest failings are decorative and minor. The hostility of so many sides suggests it struck a dangerous balance, tapping at an unpopular vein of truth. It has things to say, questions to ask, and communicates them well but, sadly if unsurprisingly, nobody’s taken much notice.

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Rated PG13

113 minutes

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