All That Glitters

Opening with a deft introduction to the two trickiest concepts in Phillip Pullman’s brilliant source novel – the notion of parallel universes and daemons - the writer and director of The Golden Compass Chris Weitz then abandons any sense of nuance or mystery in breathlessly spelling out – moment by thudding moment – the adventures of Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a pre-teen orphan girl caught up in an evil conspiracy who travels to the North Pole to save her friend from the cruel experiments run by the sinister Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) at the behest of the all-powerful Magesterium. Her only guide is the last surviving Alethiometer, a magical device that shows the user the truth, a gift from her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Later, she enlists the help of other forces for good, including a tribe of warlike witches, a noble armoured bear (voiced by Ian McKellan) and the Gyptians, a sea-faring band of gypsies.

Pullman’s dense, precise prose was never likely to lend itself to a blockbuster adaptation, with Weitz falling over himself to confuse and confound the writer’s careful positioning of his characters both in their alternate Victorian universe and their part in a wider, monumental mission. Cramming Pullman’s theories and concepts into two hours, his film seems unwilling to pause even for a moment to allow the complexities of the story to settle. The director struggles to find a way to communicate the novels ideas, with the script filled with long sections of talkative, plodding exposition. Worse, any spiritual connotations have been surgically excised to leave the bare bones of a common-or-garden quest saga.

As Lyra, the twelve year old British debutant Dakota Blue Richards gives an uneven performance, at times plucky and resourceful but lacking in charisma and compulsion. Her animated daemon Pan, voiced by Freddie Highmore, is a dependably cute companion, but the film fails to effectively communicate their unbreakable bond. Nicole Kidman projects a statuesque beauty as the evil Mrs Coulter, chiefly because her face appears set in immobile alabaster. She and co-star Daniel Craig achieve the same level of on-screen chemistry as they did in last year’s The Invasion, which is none at all. Combined, they left me so cold I put my coat back on.

Lyra and Pantalaimon race from one beautifully realised location to another, jabbering wildly with the encountered characters about developments in the plot before veering off into another action set-piece. The story is almost lost underneath a succession of mediocre battles, tricky computer-generated effects or high-tempo chases. We never get to know these characters, much less care about them or what they are doing. Craig’s feted professor Asriel is forgotten, returning briefly towards the end to a diminishing return. Sam Elliot as the charming cowboy adventurer Scoresby gets a few minutes of dialogue while Eva Green as the good witch Serafina Pekkala is given a scant introduction, an arrow-flinging sidebar in a clumsy battle and nothing else. Flat and one-dimensional, The Golden Compass succeeds only as a visual spectacle – positioned as a kind of art-deco science-fiction -and fails absolutely as storytelling. Things might improve with the two subsequent novels in the Dark Materials trilogy, should Weitz ever be given the opportunity to film them.

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