Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Golden Compass: Review

(and whilst I'm here, a link to a good and thought-provoking review at Christianity Today)

In recent years, there seems to have been an unwritten Hollywood rule that to have a fantasy action blockbuster, you need to have English accents.

Okay, Harry Potter is set in England, and you wouldn't get away with American kids or teachers in that. But whilst in the 80's we had to put up with a distinctly transatlantic Robin Hood (Kevin Costner), a whole series of fantasy trilogies - Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and now His Dark Materials - are all being voiced by English actors, or people who can do a decent English accent (Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp).

There is a problem with this, which I'll come back to in a moment. The good thing is that I can understand what people are saying. The bad thing about the Golden Compass is, even if you can understand what people are saying, you can't understand what they're on about unless you've read the book. The book - the first part of the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy by Philip Pullman - deals with some quite profound themes, which struggle to make it to celluloid.

(Since other sites have a decent summary of The plot I won't attempt one here. Reviews have been patchy. )

The film has a decent stab at introducing us to Philip Pullmans parallel universe, where people's souls live outside their bodies in animal form, and the sinister Magisterium tries to control free thought and abducts children to perform nasty experiments. There are some nice touches - a London with the 'gherkin' tower alongside a swathe of unfamiliar buildings - which bring to life the parallel universes idea. However the other big idea of the film, the nature of 'Dust', is left vague - a necessity in terms of the plot, because Pullman himself leaves this as a mystery until book 2, but it makes the film slightly confusing.

There are other jarring moments too. The film leaves off the final few chapters of the original book, in order to have a Hollywood ending. The end of the book is tragic and blows the plot wide open, but the end of the film is very upbeat - heroine Lyra on her way to free her dad, accompanied by her best friend, the bear king Iorek, and adventurer Lee Scoresby.

Even stranger is to hear Gandalfs voice coming out of the mouth of a talking polar bear. The bear itself is brilliantly realised with CGI, but there's no mistaking Ian McKellen's voice, and that made it very hard to take the character seriously. McKellen wasn't the only one popping in from elsewhere - having watched a bit of telly on Sunday, I came to the film and couldn't help wondering if Christopher Lee had donned an extra waistcoat and wandered in from Star Wars 2, or if Jim Carter had had a quick dash through make-up on his way over from Cranford. I guess there are a finite number of British actors, so they are bound to start reappearing at some stage, and reappear they do!

The religious dimension of the books is underplayed here. You'd have to look very hard to see an anti-Christian polemic. Okay, the 'Magisterium' is a Roman Catholic term, but the word 'church' is never mentioned, neither is God, and the battle is between those who want to control freedom and free will, and those who want to be free. There is a fleeting allusion to Adam and Eve, when the mysterious Mrs Coulter (persuasive, glamourous and chilling) tells Lyra that many thousands of years ago their ancestors made a big mistake, which we now have the chance to put right.

Far more interesting is the rendering of people's 'daemons', their own souls living in animal form alongside them. When people die, these souls explode in a shower of golden Dust. The souls feel pain, talk with their human counterparts, and if the two are separated the person becomes an empty shell. The Magisterium have developed a machine to perform this procedure - 'intercision' - the inference being that once people are separated from their souls they become docile and obedient, and lose free will.

For me there is a big question here, where is intercision happening in our own society? What is going on that separates us from our souls? It's more subtle than a machine with buttons and dials, but there are plenty of empty eyes and defeated lives in the real world. The thing is it's easy to pick a fight with the church because
a) as Christians we try to be like Jesus and not fight back, so we're much easier to argue with than anyone else.
b) people are far more ready to think ill of the church, because many of them have very little to do with it, and the RC church is a traditional conspiracy theory baddie (e.g. Da Vinci Code)
c) if Pullman etc. picked on the real enemy of freedom, the real force of intercision, then they'd be biting the free market hand that fed them. For example:

Final thought: what actually carries the movie is not the special effects (which are great, but we're so used to seeing great special effects now that it's easy to take them for granted), or the star name actors - Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter is suitably sinister and complex, Daniel Craig is great but underused (but that's the book for you: Asriel appears at the start, reappears at the end, and then is absent for the entirety of book 2. At least he'll be free to do more Bonds), and the aeronaut Lee Scoresby is suitably grizzled and cowboy-ish. But the real star, who acts everyone else off the screen and into the next parallel universe, is Dakota Blue Richards, playing Lyra. A 13 year old Brighton schoolgirl, chosen from 10,000 others to play the part, she carries the film, and embodies the fierce innocence of the character superbly.

It's a pretty good film. If you've not read the book, I'd be interested to know how much of the film you understand, and if you have, I wonder if you were as frustrated as I was that the film finished where it did. It won't bring the Christian faith crashing down anytime soon, and might even kick off some interesting conversations.

Meanwhile, if you want a film which tackles spiritual issues head-on in a completely different way (and you can find a cinema that shows it), Silent Light is getting some good reviews, but don't go if you're expecting an action movie!


  1. I just watched this film this evening and i've never read any of the books so i was very much left in the dark throughout the whole thing. The whole notion of 'the dust' was very unclear and remained entirely mystical throughout.

    The ending of this film seemed very abrupt, and as you point out, typical of Hollywood.

    I thought the film was very mediocre and i certainly will not bother to go and see the follow-up movie whenever it is released.

    I think you're very right to point out the intercision going on in our own society for there without a doubt is one. I am not sure though that we have become entirely souless but we have become a very cynical society. This is why people are so accepting of the likes of conspiracy theories as presented in books and films like the Da Vinci Code.

    I don't however feel that the anti-catholic sentiment is entirely without cause. Historically, the Catholic Church was proven itself to be a force of ardent Conservatism and against certain kinds of freedoms. The history of the Catholic Church is one scared with blood and violence and oppression which make it a likely target for anyone loving a story involving conspiracy.

    As for the free market? Amen to that. As a socialist... how could i possibly disagree?

  2. Thanks Lee. I'd agree with much of what you say about the Catholic church, but it strikes me that much of that is history rather than present day, and they are an easy target. We love scapegoats, especially when they are someone else. G.K Chesteron (a Catholic I think) was the one who, when debating what was wrong with the world, got it spot on: "I am".