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The Golden Compass

December 11th, 2007 (04:33 pm)
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Watching The Golden Compass is an odd experience for one who knows (though is hazy on some of the details as he hasn't read it for a while) and admires Northern Lights. The film looks like a slight misunderstanding of the book, crudely and unnecessarily made to conform to the filmmaker's idea of what's generic for a 'fantasy' film, and where the action has been magnified, and the reflection turned down.

So far, so familiar. I can't promise any new insights in this review, only join in the mourning at the shallowness of much of what was seen on screen, and heard in the script, and the uncertainty surrounding exactly what the film was about. The Magisterium, once decided upon as the personification of 'authority'/representatives of the Authority (it's not entirely clear how far the film travels with Pullman's concept of the Authority), call for further definition - it's not entirely clear how far they are a religious body, with their Fra Pavels, icon-encrusted 'district offices', and marketing-friendly symbols with their intertwined 'M's and crosses, or a secular one, and are built up as sinister and insidious in some dialogue, where in other scenes their involvement in society is a well-known fact.

Lyra is captured fairly well, but she seems less innocent than in Pullman's text, certainly towards the end when I thought Lyra needed to have absolute faith in Roger's ability and willingness to accompany her on her quest, when it's clear that Roger isn't all that adventurous and all he wants to do is go home. I wasn't too bothered by the decision to make Billy Costa the boy found in the ice without his daemon, and return him to his mother - there's a second or so where we cut back to Billy in Ma Costa's arms, and I gained the impression from what we saw of Clare Higgins that we were meant to realise that Billy had died.

I was disappointed in the realisation of Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter. The relationship between Asriel and Lyra seems warmer than it ought to be, from what I remember of the book; and I missed Patricia Hodge's interpretation from the stage play, when Mrs Coulter is portrayed as hamfistedly trying to be Lyra's mother, instead of a cold ice queen who happens to have bred her next experimental subject. Nicole Kidman ends up playing the scene at Bolvangar where Mrs Coulter reveals that she is Lyra's mother as if she is only just discovering this herself, which can't have been the intention. As for Asriel talking to himself about 'that Coulter woman' on Svalbard, it's as if the script is falling over itself to preserve the 'surprise' that Asriel and Mrs Coulter are Lyra's parents, when the audience should be taken seriously enough to appreciate it. Sadly the decision to hold over the final scenes to The Subtle Knife meant that we don't see how this seemingly passionless interpretation of their relationship would carry over to the first meeting of Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel on screen.

The whole film betrayed a lack of confidence in its own commercial potential. The existence of cuts is already on record - a sequence going into more detail about the love affair of Serafina Pekkala and Farder Coram was filmed, but not included in the cinema release, for example - and this probably explains why in some sequences there was a lot of clumsy exposition, and in others it seemed the audience was being invited to fill in gaps themselves. As for the Oxford cinemagoing crowd, there was a party at the back determined to milk every last innuendo out of the script, leading someone to shout at them for letting people watch the film. Again, the film's reading of Lyra makes her a little too knowing and doesn't convey the chivalric qualities of her relationship with Iorek - she becomes a little too much of a generic girl on a horse, who happens to be a bear.

As the closing credits rolled, I heard a dreadful song which encapsulated the film's blithe lack of subtlety. Sub-someone, I thought; a bad pastiche... and then I saw that the song was actually by Kate Bush, who could surely have done better.

It's actually watchable for all I've written, but the whole thing needs to be more considered, and if the filmmakers are not careful all the revelations of the third book will have been tablespoonfed to us before we actually get to the third film, if we get there.

Comments

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 11th, 2007 07:09 pm (UTC)

"Again, the film's reading of Lyra makes her a little too knowing and doesn't convey the chivalric qualities of her relationship with Iorek - she becomes a little too much of a generic girl on a horse, who happens to be a bear."

In relation to this, the actual low point for me was this bit: Iorek (growling threateningly) "Are you saying you want to *ride* me" (an idea at this point apparently in conflict with his pride), Lyra says "yes", firmly, and Iorek replies, without much hesitation, something tio the effect of "wll, okay then, let's go". Cringe....

Generally, I have little to add to this, but (trying to get into the skin of someone new to the story) I was left wondering why some characters were present at all...

Still, I agree, despite a seriously defective scrpt, well executed, quite watchable, and excellent for location-spotting games.

KT

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 11th, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC)

There's definitely some planning ahead - Sir Charles appears, or seems to, as one of Derek Jacobi's colleagues.

I was thinking of the scene you mention, but couldn't consider it beyond thinking of the guffawing of the sneering section of the audience.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 12th, 2007 07:01 pm (UTC)

Probably has to do with the lack of memorableness and immediacy of what could have been a pivotal scene for their relationship (and for the benefit of the mob at the back: not *that* kind of relation ship!)

:-)

KT

Posted by: the cross compiler (crouchinglynx)
Posted at: December 11th, 2007 07:33 pm (UTC)
Trailers
xface

Not relevant to the film at all, but did you happen to be in a cinema that showed the Doctor Who trailer beforehand? I was a bit annoyed by the colossal spoiler therein, because I was hoping to get away unspoiled by not watching any TV whatsoever between now and the event.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 11th, 2007 08:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Trailers

We were! I don't consider anything therein a spoiler, really, as there was nothing which didn't seem already obvious or deduceable from information already released by the production team one way or another - but I think we probably have different definitions of the term.

I was more interested by the spectacle of so many of the audience recognising the incidental music accompanying the BBC logo, and (with me) leaning forward as one...

Posted by: inamac (inamac)
Posted at: December 11th, 2007 08:16 pm (UTC)
Pegasus

we were meant to realise that Billy had died

I haven't read the books despite (or perhaps because of) living with a rabid fan of them and I didn't get that impression - in fact the impression is given that Billy will be looked after until (presumably) Lyra completes her quest and restores all the missing daemons (and yes, I know that's a complete travesty of the books - but it didn't bother me as a film-goer, and I suspect that it won't worry most of the potential audience.)

Why is it only Peter Jackson who managed to respect his source material and deliver a movie that satisfied (most) of the book fanatics as well as the general public?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 11th, 2007 08:30 pm (UTC)

I already knew that lil_shepherd thought the same as you about that scene. Sadly the cut back to Ma Costa and Billy was too quick, but to me she seemed to be grieving over an inert body.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 12th, 2007 07:04 pm (UTC)

I also got the impression that he was supposed to have fainted rather than died.
That annoyed me a bit, I'm afraid, so I am glad of your suggestion to read it differently.

KT

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 12th, 2007 07:40 pm (UTC)
parrot

Actually, reacquainting myself with the book, and given that I think that from the standpoint of the film killing Billy is gratuitous - Lyra has to think she can restore the children's daemons, even if she can't - I now think your, and inamac's and lil_shepherd's reading, is more likely.