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The Golden Compass

A story of dust and daemons makes Nicola Mostyn hits the books

Published on December 10th 2007.


The Golden Compass

Taken from the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass (from the novel Northern Lights) introduces an extraordinary and appealing parallel world in which a human’s spirit walks alongside them in the form of an animal, a daemon. Also, polar bears run the north of the country, matters of law and order are overseen by the unsettling governing body the Magisterium and children are being snatched by the mysterious ‘gobblers’

This is a fully realised world which means there’s a lot to take in for those who, like me, have not yet got round to reading Pullman’s much-loved books. The narrative is driven by the central character Lyla, a fearless young girl who, clutching an Alethiometer (golden compass) ends up at the centre of a plot concerning the missing children, the Magisterium and the mysterious dust which unites parallel universes. Through Lyla’s eyes we come to understand the world she inhabits and, indeed, the aspects of it she was hitherto unaware of.

Dakota Blue Richards is as strong as Lyla, a character who is ‘foretold’ in a similar way to Harry Potter, but who, thankfully, has more guts and spark than the boy-magician. She is supported by a starry cast which includes Daniel Craig as her truth-seeking uncle Asriel and Nicole Kidman, who is sleekly sinister as the icy Mrs Coulter. Plus there’s Tom Courtenay, Christopher Lee and…well, no epic fantasy would be complete without Ian Mckellan, who provides the voice for polar bear warrior Iorek Byrnison.

There is not much chance for pondering the implications of this world as huge events rear up every five minutes in what must be a very simplified version of the novel.

Director by writer of the screenplay Chris Weitz, the film does manage, heroically, to stay coherent and this despite a plot which introduces animal souls, gypsies, fighting polar bears, witches and a grey-haired cowboy.

While Pullman has been compared to J K Rowling, the visual impact and inventiveness of The Golden Compass is more reminiscent of Star Wars or, more often, Lord of The Rings, the latter particularly in the sweeping snowy vistas, grand fight scenes and incredible CGI. There is also something of Tolkein’s inventiveness in the wonderfully clever ideas, such as the spirit daemons, whose nature fluctuates until the human is grown up and whose eventual manifestation, one quickly deduces, can offer an insight into a person’s moral character.

So, this is a great festive family film. But….despite a great cast and a great story, I found I was enjoying the individual aspects and ideas of the film more than the movie as a whole, a fact which was mostly due to its choppy pace and which suggests that this story probably makes a much better book – that will teach me to leave Pullman languishing on a shelf.

Nonetheless, as the action concludes, The Golden Compass has achieved a satisfactory introduction to this fascinating and epic world and to the parallel universes which might exist beyond, leaving me eager to see the next film which, one hopes, might be even better.

Rating: 7/10

The Golden Compass is out now on general release

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