‘The Golden Compass’ on the Silver Screen (My Review)

Alison Morris -- December 7th, 2007

I said I’d tell you today about The Golden Compass, so on the heels of a 12-hour work day (hello, holiday season retail!) here goes:

GORGEOUS. Absolutely gorgeous! I loved the Oxford sets, the North sets, the lighting, the costumes, the make-up, and the way the special effects worked seamlessly with all of these. There was a sweeping sense of space in each scene, making it easy to forget that the scenery didn’t extend beyond the confines of the movie screen. Within that sweep, though, there were so many fine details, costumes among them. And oh, Mrs. Coulter’s dresses and the costumes for the Gyptians! Fantastic!

FAST. The story clipped along at an astonishing pace. Blink and you miss half the story! Use the restroom and the world unravels! I wondered, often, if I would have been able to keep up if I hadn’t already known where the story was heading and been so well-acquainted with the characters. Someone less "in the know" will have to pass proper judgment on that. In all I’d say that it moved a bit too quickly for my taste. A movie that covered the same ground in three hours (instead of two) would have been more to my liking.

WELL-CAST. I can’t imagine a better Mrs. Coulter than Nicole Kidman, and I thought Dakota Blue Richards made a fantastic Lyra — with just the right mix of sweetness and cheek. Even more perfect, though, might’ve been the choice of Sam Eliott as Lee Scoresby. From the second he appears on screen with his lopsided grin (and long-eared rabbit) he exudes every ounce of Lee’s charm. Once he opens his mouth he seals the deal.

TRUE. To the book, that is. Granted, much had to be cut (again, for the two-hour reason) but the "essence" of the book was undoubtedly there. Most importantly, the characters felt real — as if they’d stepped right out of the book and appeared on that big screen. The things that won me over the most in this movie were the small moments, brief conversations in which I suddenly felt as though I really was watching the book come to life. The scene in which Mrs. Coulter asks Lyra to remove her (alethiometer) handbag, arguing that it’s silly to wear one around the house, might have been my favorite scene in the movie, because emotionally it hit the book’s notes PERFECTLY. The escalation of evil in Mrs. Coulter’s voice against the escalation of defiance in Lyra’s was so good in this scene, the tension so perfect, that I felt, momentarily, like I was watching the scene I see in my head whenever I read that section.

CLEVER: In order to include the book’s "biggest" scenes but the conclude the film with an action-packed finale, director Chris Weitz had to do some inventive rearranging of things, which worked surprisingly well. I won’t spoil it for you here, but suffice it to say you get your Battle of the Bears and you get your Bolvangar, just not when you expect them.

BAFFLING. Completely so. (And there’s a spoiler here, so skip ahead if you don’t want me to ruin anything for you…) Chris Weitz chose NOT to end this movie where Philip Pullman ends the book. This makes sense when you consider that it’d be evil to end a movie on a depressing, cliff-hanger of a note, when you’re not yet assured of the finances to film a sequel. But still… I was COMPLETELY unprepared for this change. At the end of what I didn’t yet know was the final scene Roger is telling Lyra that he wants to go with her to find Lord Asriel, and my heart was breaking, my head shaking NO, NO, NO, the voice in my head telling Roger to turn around and JUST GO HOME when poof!  The credits rolled. Whaaaaaaaaaaat?! WHAT?!? It’s over? Just like that? With no _______ and the ______ and we don’t find out that _________??! Well… okay then. Happy ending it is. But how the dickens is he going to start off the second film on THAT terrible note??

BREATHTAKING. In places. Little, wonderful places. When the daemons would change form and zip suddenly from bird to mammal to insect, the change looked SO REAL. So completely real! And each time a person would die their daemon would explode in a sparkling whirl of gold dust! Beautiful!

CHEESY. Yes, cheesy. But only in one recurring place: each time Lyra read the alethiometer we, the audience, see gold sparkles swirling around brief hazy glimpses of people and scenes, making it look a bit like Lyra is falling into some 1980’s film vortex — traveling back in time or watching her life flash before her eyes. Those moments were my least favorite of the film (though I’ll grant you that I haven’t yet thought of a better way to capture them).

IMPERFECT. Like everything. I love Ian McKellen’s voice but found it distracting to hear it coming from the mouth of a polar bear, almost as if Sir Ian (or perhaps Gandalf) had been swallowed and was calling out from the bear’s stomach. This didn’t prevent me from enjoying Iorek’s scenes, though, except for the occasional moment when the computer-generated bears bore a slight resemblance the advertising bears of Coca-Cola. And Pantalaimon was believably real in his ermine form, but not so as a cat.

A LABOR OF LOVE. That’s what it felt like, above all. This movie was clearly made by someone who wanted to put a beloved book on film and make it fly.

NOT THE BOOK. It’s not the book. And in the end I think that’s what I found disappointing about this film — I got so much FROM this film, but I didn’t get enough OF this film. What was there was wonderful! Almost perfect! But that made it almost all the more painful to get such a small fraction of the full story. In my dream world, there would have been enough funding to do this elaborate film as a 6-hour or 12-hour movie. Except, who would be able to sit though such a thing? So… maybe a 6-hour or 12-hour HBO mini-series! Except then you’d lose the impressive sweep of seeing these sets and these costumes on a big, BIG screen.

Gareth commented tonight that he thought the biggest thing missing from the movie was, for him, the "edge" that’s present in the book, and I’m inclined to agree. The trouble is, there’s just not enough time, in two hours, to move the plot where it needs to go AND build in that edge — the tension, the fear, the conflict, the love, the betrayal. But without them, the end results just aren’t that powerful. I teared up at the end of this movie, but I feel relatively certain that’s because I know the WHOLE story. I know what’s been cut, I know what comes next, I know how the whole affair finally ends. If I didn’t, well…? Let’s just say that I HOPE this movie will make people who don’t know the whole story want to go in search of it. If it does that, then it’s doing about as well as ANY movie version of The Golden Compass could do, even if it ran for 6 or possibly 12 hours!

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