I don't remember being as nervous about seeing a film for years. It's not the subject matter, or how I think the film is going to affect me. It's just that I'd only comparatively recently finished reading the novels upon which the film was based. Oh I know it's a cliché to spout on about how books never live up to their filmic counter parts, especially when it's so all encompassing and intricate. But then Lord of the Rings faired well didn't it? However, it took some bringing to the screen that one; years of pre and post production, simultaneous filming, a writer director that was totally dedicated and absorbed by the original story and backed by a studio that just knew they had a hit on their hands. Taking that score card and checking it against tonight's feature it appears one or two ticks are missing; actually it's only the Studio that remains the same ..... are my fears justified?
I couldn't believe that Philip Pullman's Dark Material trilogy is a children's book, it is chock full of disturbing dilemmas, challenging concepts and ingenious inventions. The over all story arc is itself a complex ideology pulling on may different quantum theories woven together with theological arguments. There is nothing childish about the novels at all, save the fact the main protagonist is a young girl. And whilst the intended audience my be able to identify with that aspect, her world and situations are something altogether different and demand much from the reader. When reading the books I was awe struck by the intricate nature of Pullman's world(s) and how all the threads he throws into the air come together forming an interweaving tapestry the likes of which are rarely, if ever, matched. Turning this world into a film is going to be a difficult job; but with the right treatment and the right backing great things could be achieved. I'm not sure it quite made it.
Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) despite being nobly born prefers to spend life with the working class children, particularly Roger (Ben Walker) as they climb the roofs of Oxford University when they live. However, Lyra's world is about to be thrown into turmoil when her Uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), defies the Magisterium, the governing body of the world, and persuades Oxford to finance a trip to the North to investigate Dust, a phenomenon that appears to control the separation between worlds. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) takes Lyra away from the University to educate her and on the promise of going North, but not before the Master of the Collage hands her the last remaining alethiometer, a 'golden compass' that enables the reader to see the truth of things. When Lyra discovers the truth of the 'Gobblers', the sinister group of individuals that kidnaps children, she finds herself on the run, but her guardians, the 'Gyptians' give her shelter and passage north. Her fortune crosses path with Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen) an armoured bear and Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) an aeronaut and together this motley crew, under the watchful eye of the witches, headed up by Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), head further north and discover the horrific truth of what really happens to the children taken by the Gobblers......
One of the genius moments of Pullman's novels was the invention of the daemons, a device used, in the first instance, to give Lyra someone to talk too when she was stowed away in the cupboard overhearing the Lord Asriel's plans about going North. The idea that your soul can walk beside you as a living breathing creature, a permanent companion, makes perfect sense in the pages of a book; no definite explanation is given nor needed for their existence, you just accept that in this work daemons exist. One of the first mistakes that the film makes is the prologue; a device straight from Jackson's Lord of the Rings (not surprising due to a number of the same producers), but in that epic a preamble was needed, after all the book had The Hobbit as its prologue. The Golden Compass needed no such pandering, information on worlds, daemons or Dust were completely unnecessary items of information to bewilder the audience within the first few minutes of the film. Lyra's voyage of discovery should be the audiences voyage also. I can see the arguments used to provide a backing, but seriously it's a waste of film and Weitz's concerned with pacing here was a few minutes saved!
Weitz was also the writer of the film, he kept pretty faithful to the story, integrating all the major plot developments, even if they did come in a slightly different order. However his pacing was such that a lot of the characterisation seems to wander off the page. If you hadn't the knowledge of the books the character motivations their wants and desires, their being is missing. Thankfully the casting was near spot on and this helps immensely to keep the audience on their side. Dakota Blue Richards is an absolute delight as Lyra, the part could have been written for her, my only concern was that her heart seemed to get lost somewhere between the book and the script; her desire to find and save Roger from the Gobblers, the reason for her journey, isn't brought out enough in the film. Nicole Kidman as Coulter is, again, perfect casting, but once again her cold hard streak, her utter hateful treatment of the children seems somewhat lost in film; there are a couple of scenes (when she fights with Lyra by torturing her daemon for example) when it tries to show us her dark side, but it is still missing something. Danny Craig, a favourite actor of mine, seems like he is playing Bond again, he may look the part, but he was in the film for such a short time it could have been a cameo. Special mention to Sam Elliot, his casting as Lee Scoresby was absolutely spot on. Special mention to Ian McKellen as the voice of Iorek Byrnison, what were they thinking?
So whilst the actors were a near perfect match to their literary counterparts the actual characters are nowhere near as fleshed out as they could have been; now I appreciate that time and pacing in a film is always an issue; but this one strolls in at under two hours, surely a little more development on the characters could have been written in, so we can really understand and feel with them. We never get to fully appreciate quite how horrific the splitting of a child from the daemon really is, or the utter contempt the medical staff have for their charges; even when Lyra is put into the device we don't really comprehend quite was is happening to her. Without that horror the film is doomed. And the reasons behind the experiment are muddled in confusion; the Magisterium is never seen as the evil church that it is supposed to be. This was a conscious decision taken by the film makers to remove all references to religion fearing some sort of reprisal; another crass mistake in my view. Without the church and the loss of innocence, without the wanton control and the underhanded methods employed, without the torture of the children and the consequences of those actions the film just does not have that sheer edge to pull you into the screen. There are no holes per sa but all the developments seem to flow by coincidence rather than any direction.
I must also mention the visual effects, for the most part these are pretty good, the CG daemons are a part of the screen and interact well with the characters, the digital backdrops look exquisite, but the bears are just wrong, particularly during the dominance battle scene; and this film won an Oscar over and above Transformers? A travesty.
There is no denying the passion and commitment of everyone involved with the making of this film, however the sum of all this does not quite make the film succeed. It does contain all the major plot elements of the book save one; the characterisation. Without that any film will suffer and unfortunately this one does; particularly when the characters are so well defined in the book. And I don't need to have read the books to say that, the characters in this film don't have the emotional background nor the depth to really succeed and that is ultimately why this film falls short of greatness. And it is such a shame, because I really, really wanted it to succeed. With the second part now being released, let's hope that the mistakes of this are learned and the film makers can move forward in what is one of the greatest bodies of literature in the modern world.
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