The Golden Compass (Chris Weitz, 2007)

 Shakespearean polar bears would raise up any movie

The world of The Golden Compass cowers under the yoke of an authoritarian rule of religious zealots called the Magisterium. Scientists are poisoned, children kidnapped for experimentation and free thinking hindered at every step of the way. Real world religious [christian] groups have rallied against the series of books this film is based on, claiming it made them look bad. In the Netherlands we have a saying for that: ‘Wie de schoen past, trekke hem aan.’ Whom the cap fits, let him wear it.

Orphan girl Lyra gets her hands on a mysterious artifact, the titular compass, and finds allies and enemies as she ventures north to deal with a conspiracy of kidnapped friends and parallel worlds. The Magisterium is always hot on her heels, but fortunately society’s miscreants are there to help her: the seafaring Gyptians, an outcast polar bear prince and a gaggle of witches. Oh, and salty dog Sam Elliot, lending his impressive trademark mustachio to the cause.

There is no doubt the story speaks out against organized religion and its nastier ramifications. At one point the scheme is unearthed to separate children from their daemons: animal familiars who represent their soul in this world. Villainess Mrs. Coulter (played to seductive perfection by Nicolle Kidman) explains it as “just a little cut” for the benefit of the child. It doesn’t take much to liken it to real world circumcision. The film backs up the link with religious iconography scattered everywhere, men in robes lording over man’s morality and the sort of language found expressly in cults: heresy, oblation.

The whole affair testifies to the film’s solid range of ideas that puts it far beyond its typical peers in the ‘magical children’s fantasy’ genre that Walden Media and its ilk have been reaching varying success with. The Chronicles of Narnia, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Zathura, City of Ember; all of these are fun movies that explore similar themes, but none of them broach the subjects The Golden Compass boldly tackles. It alone manages to stand up next to heavyweights as Harry Potter.

Let me be perfectly clear here: the film isn’t particularly great, but there are many delightful ideas and scenes to take in. It is sprinkled with topics that are fresh and interesting, and surprisingly deep for the target audience. The religious allusions are unmistakable, there is a fairly hefty complication with orphans and their parents, and the polar bear prince that returns to claim his rightful throne brings Shakespearean grandeur. Not that any of these themes couldn’t have been improved or strengthened in some way (in the end, it remains a movie for kids), but it’s enough to provide some genuinely interesting moments.

When Lyra first meets the aforementioned outcast prince, Iorek, he is a drunken aggressor roaring about and slobbering whisky – hardly the noble guardian she needs him to be. There is also a moment when the wicked lady Coulter gets mad and slaps her daemon monkey. You should know that daemons in this world are not just the representation of the owner’s soul, but what hurts them reflects back. It’s a subtle sign how troubled this person is.

According to series author Phillip Pullman, he was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost. This legacy shows as The Golden Compass is filled with well-constructed ideas. Moreover, the film presents a dazzling landscape of, first, a London filled with airships and gleaming buildings, then, endless ice-ridden, twilit vistas as Lyra travels north. Breathtaking, to say the least. Its biggest problem is that it was always meant to be part of a trilogy, but its two remaining films got cancelled when earnings disappointed. Or perhaps New Line got frightened by the religious fallout. The Magisterium might not really exist, its grasp extend outside the story still, it would seem. Regardless, without two more movies to develop the themes and characters that were deftly set up in The Golden Compass, it is an incomplete film without an ending. It stands as a strange beginning filled with promising ideas and a bold vision.

It is a real shame we’ll never get to experience the full scope of this story. The signs on the compass showed it could’ve been nothing short of spectacular.

Roderick Leeuwenhart




2 comments:

  1. It looks lovely for a kids movie :). Also, looking through the screenshots on this blog, I'm always impressed how every shot seems to be thought out and pondered until its composition and lighting is really nice. As an artist I love this, so educational~

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    1. Full disclosure: I sometimes have to do a little cutting and cropping in the screens to prepare them for the blog, so it's not always precisely what you see in the movie. More generally: yes, films tend to spend a lot of time getting the composition and the lighting just right. There are whole departments (art, lighting) exclusively committed to decorating the mise-en-scene. The captain on the ship is the cinematographer, who leads the visual design. Then there's the cameraman who chooses the best possible angle and shot. With so many specialists, it's no wonder movies can be so deeply artistic on many levels.

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