I am a long-time fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series and in 2007 the first book, Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in the US), was finally coming to the big screen as The Golden Compass movie. The book presented a number of difficulties for the film-makers, but most of them were handled quite beautifully. Still, the movie left me with mixed feelings when I initially saw it in theater, partly because of an abrupt ending. Directed by Chris Weitz, and starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and a newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, The Golden Compass is a story of a different world and a girl, caught up in the midst of a profound discovery that might decide the fate of all the universes.
In a parallel universe, a young orphan Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) lives at Jordan College in Oxford, where circumstances lead her to hear something she isn’t supposed to know – something concerning “dust”, unique particles that presumably come from parallel universes. In Lyra’s world every person’s soul lives outside the body in an animal form and is called a daemon. As Lyra’s friend Roger goes missing, she encounters a dangerous and elusive organization based in the North that runs mysterious experiments concerning children, their daemons and dust. Before leaving Jordan College with Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who wants to take Lyra North with her as an assistant, Lyra comes into the possession of an alethiometer, given to her by the master of the college. Alethiometer (golden compass) is a device that shows the truth to those who can learn to read it. Lyra is determined to travel North and find Roger.
As I mentioned above, there were several important difficulties in adapting The Golden Compass to the big screen. Probably the most significant one was to create daemons and fit them organically into the environment, and not make it look too crowded. Not only did the special effects team succeed, but its efforts were recognized by the Academy, with an Oscar for the Visual Effects. Creating a parallel universe, however similar to ours, is no small feat, and the production quality in this movie is exceptional. Every detail is well thought-out, be it London cityscape or a method of transportation. The whole look of Lyra’s world has a distinct steampunk feel to it, which works perfectly well. The diversity of the people is also very well represented, from the Gyptians to Tartars. The magnificent Norwegian landscapes provide quite a backdrop for the story, while our characters journey further North. Alexandre Desplat’s music gives a very interesting feel to the movie, especially in the opening sequence, there is indeed something otherworldly about the theme.
Pretty much the whole movie rests on the shoulders of Dakota Blue Richards – without the right Lyra it would never work. Even though it’s her first movie, she holds her own next to actors like Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig (who portrays Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel). Lyra is a strong and brave character, and Dakota Blue Richards is very convincing. The whole movie is quite a showcase of actors, with Sam Elliott as aeronaut Lee Scoresby, Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala, and Jim Carter as the Gyptian king John Faa. The actors voicing some of the CGI characters are also impressive. For instance, Ian McKellen is unmistakable as the voice of the armored bear Iorek Byrnison.
For all its impressive qualities and great potential, The Golden Compass lacks something crucial to the story – its proper ending. Now, it is understandable that this is a trilogy, and those scenes were probably meant to be included in the next movie, but unfortunately, the next movie never came. Despite some disappointment at the end, I would highly recommend this not-so-typical fantasy movie.