When a spate of child kidnappings claims her friend Roger, Lyra (Richards) sets off to rescue him. This brings her into a battle between her world’s religious government and her only known relative (Craig), who’s set on (heretically) proving the existence of parallel worlds.
Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a fair comparison, but since New Line made it themselves with the movie’s first trailer, let’s address one thing from the off: The Golden Compass is not a new Lord Of The Rings. Not unless you think that the secret to the success of Peter Jackson’s masterful trilogy was a very long walk and a selection of characters named after remote villages in Uzbekistan.
Where Jackson wrestled a literary doorstop, packed with ideas both profound and banal, into an elegant and heart-thumping trilogy, Chris Weitz has started his own would-be threesome with a graceless, distracted plod through one of the most interesting and incendiary novels of the past fifteen years. The key theme of the failings of organised religion is given only mumbling lip-service, and Pullman’s flood of magical creativity is turned into a heavy mist of confusing silliness. It is as packed with incident and excitement as a trip to Marks and Spencer’s sock department.
Tom Stoppard’s script must have been written backwards in Swahili to be rejected for Weitz’s box-ticking effort. The talented writer/director of About A Boy has made something humourlessly faithful to the book’s events, but without its feeling. If you have favourite moments then rest assured they are here in some form – but they will only match the fantasies in your head if you are a mildly depressed Belgian accountant.
Almost every memorable occurrence from the source material is abbreviated into a hasty passage of exposition telling you why this bit’s important. Favourite characters are introduced to the audience with the only apparent purpose of pointing young Lyra in the direction of another po-faced oddball who might in turn direct her to the next. It’s a roll call rather than a story. We hear a great deal of long-held relationships between various characters, but we’re never shown any of them. Hardly any character interacts with anyone but Lyra. Really, if you’re just going to have events described to you, why not read the book?
It’s a crying shame to see such a well-cast ensemble go to waste in what amounts to a film wholly made of cameos. As Lord Asriel, the grumpy explorer who kickstarts the quest, Daniel Craig has little to do other than scowl famously and work up to shaving his beard. Newcomer Richards does a decent job with a role largely played opposite CG animals, but struggles with lumpy dialogue. It’s only Kidman as the villainous Mrs Coulter and Sam Elliott as good ol’ boy sky captain Lee Scorseby who leave an impression, most meaningfully when saying nothing at all.
The movie’s greatest disappointment is the total lack of atmosphere or scale. This is a quest that ventures from Oxford to the North Pole, yet gives the impression of being navigable at a relaxed pace in a weekend, with frequent pauses for being shot at. Weitz manages one grand sequence, a crunching duel between two polar bears (looking a lot better animated than early footage suggested), but for the film’s climactic battle the drama escapes him. His sparsely populated frame and limited selection of interesting shots serve to make events look meek and isolated rather than epic.
A final caution: if you’ve read the book and remember the cliffhanger ending, be warned that the movie has been bizarrely and unsatisfyingly chopped off at a point when things are looking like they might get a bit exci…
A crushing disappointment for fans and a scuppered opportunity for a cinematic event. That the first book has been so mishandled doesn’t bode well for the (already greenlit) more complicated ones to come.