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Written by Funn Lim
 

"The one and only reason why this movie ultimately fails. The exclusion of the book ending is the single biggest mistake made in this movie and that to me ultimately killed this movie."

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SPOILERS ... SPOILERS ... SPOILERS

Released In
2007

Based on
The 1st of 3 books called His Dark Materials written by Philip Pullman. In US the book's title is The Golden Compass, in the rest of the world, The Northern Lights. Contents of both books are the same.

Cast-Character
Nicole Kidman ... Marisa Coulter/Mrs Coulter
Daniel Craig ... Lord Asriel
Dakota Blue Richards ... Lyra Belacqua
Ben Walker ... Roger
Freddie Highmore ... Pantalaimon (voice)
Ian McKellen ... Iorek Byrnison (voice)
Eva Green ... Serafina Pekkala
Jim Carter ... John Faa
Tom Courtenay ... Farder Coram
Ian McShane ... Ragnar Sturlusson (voice)
Sam Elliott ... Lee Scoresby
Christopher Lee ... First High Councilor
Kristin Scott Thomas ... Stelmaria (voice)
Edward de Souza ... Second High Councilor
Kathy Bates ... Hester (voice)

Plot summary
Taken from imdb.com.

It was no ordinary life for a young girl: living among scholars in the hallowed halls of Jordan College and tearing unsupervised through Oxford's motley streets on mad quests for adventure. But Lyra's greatest adventure would begin closer to home, the day she heard hushed talk of an extraordinary particle. Microscopic in size, the magical dust- found only in the vast Artic expanse of the North -was rumored to possess profound properties that could unite whole universes. But there were those who feared the particle and would stop at nothing to destroy it. Catapulted into the heart of a terrible struggle, Lyra was forced to seek aid from clans, gyptians, and formidable armored bears. And as she journeyed into unbelievable danger, she had not the faintest clue that she alone was destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle...

Comments
The Golden Compass, aka Nothern Lights, the 1st part of the trilogy known as His Dark Materials is visually stunning with generally superb performances but ultimately falls horribly flat due to uninspiring direction and bad adaptation from an otherwise rich source of material.

And that is the end of my review but being me I must explain why I feel The Golden Compass is a disappointment and is a classic example that when things go wrong, they go terribly and boringly wrong.

I never quite like the book and frankly never quite understand the meaning and significance of dust, deamon and Lyra Belacqua. However what I do like about the book is definitely two of the most engaging characters one would come across in a book that can incite as much passion in the reader as hate. Then there's the interesting concept of deamon (pronounced as demon), your soul in the form of an animal that can interact with you and walk with you. It's like having your soul as your pet, your ultimate best friend, your soul mate, your confidant and in one review the possible fear that the entire movie will be turned into a walking zoo. In a way the fear was true.

New Line Cinema which also produced Lord Of The Rings billed this movie earlier on as the next Lord Of The Rings. Somewhere along the way the tagline disappeared and resurfaced and then the movie came and there came the confirmation; so far no other fantasy flick, not even Narnia nor Harry Potter movies could beat Lord Of The Rings when it comes to visuals, action scenes and more importantly, and this being the single reason why The Golden Compass failed miserably, clever adaptation of an otherwise very thick book. Granted, the Lord Of The Rings books are thick, so thick that there are a lot of unnecessary plots and stories that Peter Jackson and gang could delete, rearrange, rewrite and rework on it. The Golden Compass is a bit like the Harry Potter books, every page seems to be a wealth of plot and information so the adaptation is difficult. But unlike Peter Jackson who grasped the meaning of the books and its direction, Chris Weitz , the director of The Golden Compass who also wrote the screenplay failed miserably in producing a coherent storyline. By the end of the movie you still won't know what is dust. Not that you're supposed to because it takes 3 books to explain the importance of it but at least the 1st movie should get you excited to see the 2nd or even read the books, but this movie will probably discourage you.

The problem is many folds, the major ones are because of wrong emphasis on plot points and more importantly deletion of the ending of the 1st book.

The emphasis in this movie is Lyra and her journey. Ok, that's quite like the book. But to me the book points beyond her journey. It points to her discovery that the way things are are not always the way things are. It is a cruel world, as she witnessed in the last scene of the 1st book which drives her to do what she will do later. As a child she is carefree, happy, undisciplined and innocent in a childlike way but gutsy also. What happened in the end thought her about betrayal, the break of trust and the cruel intentions of someone she cared about that she never thought of. Along the way she will discover more things, so it is really like the journey of education of Lyra Belacqua into womanhood. This movie got the 1st part correct but later on the movie's Lyra is nothing more than just an observer. She does not seem to participate. Every thing that happened could be compartmentalised and she was never fully fleshed out. She is brave but for no particular expressed reason. There is no reason to drive her, no purpose other than rescuing her friend Roger that was kidnapped and all those reviews which said the reunion was very moving must be sleeping when watching the movie. I found that scene like its surrounding in the Gobbler's lab; too sterilized and sanitised. It was not emotional, it was not moving, it was just "let's get this over with so that we can move on to the next scene". One scene does not serve the purpose of the other, it does not drive the other, it is just like a sequence of pictures that hopefully when pieced together will present a story which did not.

The only scene that was exciting to watch was of course the talking Polar Bears, one of which was voiced wonderfully by Sir Ian McKellan. In fact there are a few cast members from LOTR although they may not be in front of the camera. Christopher Lee for one was superb as Saruman in LOTR but in here as a member of the shadowy Magisterium, he seems more like a scary old caricature. He has no important role to play in the movie except to look sinister which he naturally does look that way.

Almost every character in this movie seems to be populated by a character that has a name and an identity and a role to play in the book but in the movie they became walk on roles and wasted.

For example, Serafina Pekkala played by the beautiful and now more English than the English (in her accent), Eva Green. She may not have a big role in the 1st book but her deamon and herself played a very important role rather than just to fly in, talk, battle and fly out. Lord Asriel, played by the magnificent Daniel Craig had a small role in the book which is even smaller in the movie, however a pivotal role. He is the Saruman of LOTR in the sense that he is always talked about but rarely seen. Characters in the book seems to discuss about him, a lot but we rarely see him. His actions are the ones that impact the plot and Lyra's decision later on and will provide for the biggest cliffhanger a book can give which the movie edited out. However in here he is nothing more than a walk on role with a wink or two for his niece, Lyra when in the book he is not only formidable, but almost mad in his pursuit of the dust and cruel in a good way. You know some people may mean well but they do things that are the opposite and Lord Asriel I am sure is a man who believes that the end justifies the means. The movie neither showed that nor even suggested that. He was simply shown as a formidable man, and with a snow leopard by his side, one would of course automatically agree he is a formidable man without much question to why and how is he such a formidable man. Then there's Mrs Coulter, played convincingly by the very cold looking Nicole Kidman. Whatever criticism one may have over her botoxed face, I am sure she as a mannequin can still out-act perhaps all those young stars today, namely the overrated Keira Knightley. In the entire movie perhaps only Mrs Coulter and the deamons had some resemblence of characterisation. Pantalaimon, Lyra's shape shifting deamon had more coherent role than all others eventhough he was rarely in one shape. Stelmaria, Asriel's deamon was a walk on character with one line whilst Coulter's daemon, the mute golden monkey had a better characterisation than the human counterpart. Iorek Byrnison the polar bear was a character to behold but much of his history was changed although his fight scene with the bear king was spectacular although unrelated to Lyra's plot. It serves no purpose other than to show some good action scene of many CGI bears. Anyway his name was changed if I remember correctly but that is because of a very good reason; in the book his name was very similar with the bear king's name so for practical reasons it had to be changed.

Although the Daemons fared better, I do feel one reviewer was right to point out the fear he or she had that the movie will turn into a zoo. It almost felt that way in the beginning but after a while even the daemons seem to fade away. I like the scenes where when the human is killed, the deamon just disappear in a golden poof. But after seeing it for I don't know how many times it tend to get boring. Anyway I am so going to name my next dog Daemon.

Then there's Lyra. I don't know about her, I am confused as to my feelings about her. I just feel she is more like a bystander than a participant. She seems to just act gutsy and spunky and a bit scared sometimes in quantities that can surprisingly be measured like a recipe but in the end she seems to me a pretty empty character. It could be fleshed out more but again the editing and storytelling failed her.

I do not know whether the problem lies with the story adaptation or the editing. I saw some edited scenes and I feel perhaps the director was not given an opportunity to present the story he wanted to present and he was forced to edit some scenes that in the end prove crucial to the story. Which is why I admire Peter Jackson. Not only did he get financing for 3 movies at one go, he managed to keep the story he wanted to tell, even if he was a bit long winded, he actually got the spirit and the story right. So maybe the director of The Golden Compass didn't get the same leverage and so he had to cut.

The first he cut was of course the role of the magisterium in the movie. It was toned down. I have no complains about that because even when toned down by the way the characters dressed, they are obviously people from the church, only more severe, more like an organised government than men of God. For all the protests that parents or churches may have on the impact of this movie, they're overblown. Moreover the books, like Daniel Craig kept repeating himself is against organized religion and not against God per se. So not much is lost although the magisterium seems more like cartoon villains that real villains. Anyway with so little of them in this movie and so much cut from the book, if ever book 3 was ever to be adapted, how does one film the scene where Asriel and Mrs Coulter kill God? Well not the real God anyway, but an angel who tookover God.

Of course there were many scenes which connect book 2 and 3 with book 1 were also deleted from the script, like earlier on the meeting between Asriel and the scholars. If I remember correctly that scene was changed significantly. From who actually put the poison into the wine glass of Asriel, to why Asriel asked Lyra to hide and observe to how the presentation was done which includes the head of a famed explorer who will have a significant impact in book 2 and its lead character(s). It also changed and toned down significantly the conversation or rather the chilly exchange between the cold Asriel and the stubborn Lyra which quickly established the man Asriel is, the girl Lyra is and the lack of closeness in their relationship. All these are important because it introduces Lyra in a favourable light in the sense she is one determined girl and how harsh Asriel can be but again all deleted, cut out or changed for reasons I do not know why. Maybe to make Asriel more sympathetic perhaps?

And then I must talk about the significance of the golden compass in this movie which was significantly reduced in the movie to the point that it is just a compass. I don't remember the book ever referring to it as a golden compass which this movie did, it is called alethiometer. I know, a mouthful but oh so exotic. In the book it played a very big role in helping Lyra seperate between good intentions and bad and helped her out in some sticky situations. It also signifies how special Lyra is because even the scholars, after years of study of the books on the symbols on the alethiometre could not decipher what the compass was telling them, so when Lyra could simply on instinct, she was indeed special. It was the compass who told Lyra Mrs Coulter didn't mean well and helped to bring about the tragedy she would face in the end with Asriel. But the movie really downplayed the significance of the compass and instead emphasised more on the bears so it would have been more appropriate to call the movie after the bears.

The dialogue seems a bit strange too towards the end where Lyra calls Iorek as "my love" or something like that. A bit too affectionate, a bit unlike her since she is a tomboy who spurns such affectionate terms. I don't know, the dialogue seems a bit strained to me.

Then there's the end scene. I read what was missing from the movie so I knew. I also saw some of those end scenes in the trailer. You know the scene where Asriel kisses Mrs Coulter? That was the end which was cut. A great pity. But what I didn't expect how fundamentally wrong it is to change the ending as the producers did that well, fundamentally killed this movie with one single snip. The director said in light of the audiences, he wanted to have an uplifting ending. Oops! This movie will go down in history as the one movie that looks down on its audiences because we the audiences want not an uplifting ending but an ending worthy of a cliffhanger. The book gave that to us. I didn't like the book but the ending was shocking, thrilling and made me take up the 2nd book and read which of course did not start where it ended. Anyway the director and producers underestimated the audiences and why it performed below expectations is simply because of this one moment of disastrous executive decision. They should have left the ending as in the book because it will show many things; the disintergration of Lyra's innocence, the possiblity of the evilness of Lord Asriel, the confusion that Mrs Coulter is facing, the heartbreak of losing a friend by trusting the wrong people which causes guilt and most possibly a wealth of a special effects scene that will blow all other special effect scene in all other fantasy flick to smitherin. Moreover it will call for oscar moments like great performances. In fact you can see that one scene of the reunion between Asriel, Roger and Lyra where Daniel Craig in the space of 30 seconds showed so much of change in his expressions that I feel it is such a great pity it was deleted. The director kept saying it will be the beginning of movie no. 2, if it is ever made which it will be made but maybe by a different director but the impact will be lost.

Or maybe it is the storytelling itself. The director is well known as a 1st time fantasy flick director. Well there are others like him but the results seem to suggest he didn't understand the story or was overwhelmed by the special effects. There are many scenes of grandois, like he was in awe of the technology, like the scene about the plane that Mrs Coulter and Lyra boarded and especially the repeated view of the gyptian ship. In fact that had me feeling very impatient with the never ending shot of that ship sailing along and I counted, 3 times. Of course it wasn't that long but it felt that long whilst for the characters it was more like touch and go without much substance. Clearly the director may have had an idea what he was doing at first but ended up being really lost in the big set pieces and mega special effects and stuff.

Which is a great pity because he had assembled a fine cast, except for a debatable few.

Daniel Craig may have a 10 min or less walk on scene but his scene was perhaps one of the more intriguing because Lord Asriel is intriguing. In fact the author Philip Pullman seems to spend quite some time writing about this character, and since he had a snow leopard by his side, he must be one special character. However Daniel didn't play the character as I read it. He is still cold, stern but not cruel, not demanding, not persistent, no formidable enough, not harsh enough and definitely not those who seems to believe the end justifies the means. In the book you seem to get all that in the first part, and a very exciting chilly relationship between Lyra and her much respected uncle. He never seems to love her and even till the end I doubt he had ever loved Lyra. He gives me an impression he is not only all that, he is also obssessed. Maybe 10 min of role may be too much to ask for so for all the time given to Daniel, he did really well. And then I saw the deleted scene where he met Lyra and Roger who came to rescue him, looking handsome and well shaven, there seems to be madness glinting in his eyes and he scolded Lyra. That scene was awesome and showed some resemblance to my favourite character in the book that I love to hate. Oh yes my favourite but I hated Lord Asriel eventhough I can't disagree with his actions although we can debate whether what he did, that is sacrificing someone to achieve a greater purpose is really all that noble and for a good cause. Daniel, after the editing seems to present a softer and much amused Lord Asriel, unlike the one I read in the book. A good interpretation I suppose but again 10 min of scenes is hardly enough time for such a remarkable actor to present his character fully. I doubt anyone could. I think even Anthony Hopkins needed more time to make good the character of Hannibal Lecter. But I must say, Daniel Craig is charismatic. His daemon however, Stelmaria was such a sad case of wasted character. He doesn't seem to interact much with her. I can't feel the closeness. A bit of a pat on her head would be nice.

Nicole Kidman was stunningly beautiful as Mrs Coulter, and yes very plastic. So what? Mrs Coulter is conniving, cold and quite heartless in the beginning until mother instincts kicked in. I thought she was magnificent and amongst all the adults her character actually had the resemblance of a character in itself. But yes too much botox could limit the expression but I feel she still has it. She is as charismatic as ever, a capable actress and though their partnership in The Invasion was panned as without chemistry, and in this movie they never met (well in the edited version anyway), I like the idea of my favourite actress and favourite actor together. They can try to out-act each other. Her Mrs Coulter is soft, cold, passionate, cruel, flexible, hard... she is everything of the opposites and I feel she is the one depiction that most resembled the character in the book although some pivotal scenes had been changed, like her role in the kidnap of the children was suggested, not shown like in the book. Fantastic performance but alas, limited by bad editing. People are now blaming her for the failure of the movie for mega success due to her box office poison. Ever thought perhaps the director failed her?

Eva Green had so little scene I could not even bring myself to comment about her performance. However her English accent, same as in Casino Royale is getting too English you know. Other than that no comment.

Sam Elliott. Lots of hair I must say, snowy white. Probably the only American character in this movie and a cowbiy to boot. Great? Not enough screentime or rather useful screentime to be that but competent. Again the problem is the director and editing I suppose. The original choice was Samuel L Jackson. I wonder why he didn't get cast? Because it would have been a good choice.

The actors who provided the voices, like Sir Ian McKellan as the bear was magnificent and commanding. He grabs your attention from the first growl, of course the sight of a bear working is also one of the reason. Freddie Highmore as Pantalaimon is magnificent as well. He breaths life into Pan and gave him a sometimes mischevious edge although in the book it was Lyra who was more mischevious. I always felt if Freedie Highmore were to be discovered earlier he would have been a better Harry Potter than Daniel Radcliffe. Definitely a better actor although not much of a looker. Kristin Scott Thompson was surprisingly in this movie and as what? Stelmaria's voice! Two lines and her job was done. Pity.

Then there were the other characters. Mostly underused, mostly caricatures but overall competent in their respective roles.

And we have Dakota Blue Richards. A guarantee for your child to be a child star is to name her Dakota. She is pretty. Looking mature beyond her age, she will grow into a very beautiful girl and in a strange way resembles Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. And tall too for a 12 year old. Now her accent may be sometimes on and sometimes off but who cares? This is her very first movie, very first acting job and amongst all the big guns and special effects and the enormous budget, she did ok. Ok, so everybody said she was stunning but I beg to differ. I feel she could have been better. She is slightly better than Daniel Radcliffe when he first started, much much better than Emma Watson, a lesser Abigail Breslin, more natural than the freaky Dakota Fanning but not in the same or near the same league as Haley Joel Osment, Joe Mazarro and of course Freddie Highmore himself. But she will grow, she will probably get better or like Emma Watson, annoyingly worse. Anyway for her first performance, she is still obviously an amateur. There were many scenes you know she was mentally preparing herself to deliver the lines, waiting for her cue and then trying as much as she could to utter the lines with the appropriate emotions. The way she would walk forward and deliver her lines suggests that. I wouldn't say it was the worst of all debuts but frankly she was ok but not that great. She is not the reason why this movie will succeed (that is because of the bears, daemons, Eva Green, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) and she will not be the reason why this movie fails (the director, the producer) nor will she be the reason that there will be the 2nd and 3rd movies (that will be dependent on the producer, the audiences and the box office). But she does play a role but like in the movie I am not quite sure what her role is, yet. Hopefully there will be the 2nd and 3rd movie to explain her character, her role and see her growing as an actress. As for now, I find her adequate but not mind blowing. She can do better, and hopefully more naturally.

After writing so much, I feel the reason the movie fails is not because of:-

1. the controversy
2. the performances
3. the visual effects
3. the costumes
4. the haphazard adaptation which plays a big role but not the ultimate role
5. the deamons
6. the bears
7. the story
8. the supposed anti-god story
9. the amount of audiences shunning this movie

It is because of:-

1. the poor adaptation
2. the decisions to cut certain scenes
3. the uninspiring direction of a very inadequate and unsure director who let others walk all over him and commited suicide by buthering his own movie
4. the producers who somehow felt people needed a more uplifting ending
5. the uplifting ending
6. the confusing plot, helped no less by 2, 3 and 4 above
7. the underuse of certain actors
8. the overuse of certain props
9. the no use of the book in a good way
10. the fear of creating controversy, thus toning down of certain aspects of the book

But ultimately to me it is because of:-

The one and only reason why this movie ultimately fails. The exclusion of the book's ending is the single biggest mistake made in this movie and that to me ultimately killed this movie.

For that I feel really sorry for Nicole Kidman because she got blamed. How unfair. How unfair indeed.

On the upside, there should be a surge in the sales of the books since everybody would really like to know how does the movie compare to the book itself. And that is a positive thing.

Verdict
Watch it simply because I want enough of box office figures to justify the making of the 2nd and 3rd movie and hopefully the producers will stop meddling into the director's creative process, find a competent director and find someone who knows how to adapt a book into screenplay properly.I do think the visuals alone is worth a watch. If you're not bothered, then avoid this mess and just rewatch LOTR for the fantasy element, Casino Royale for the drool element and To Die For and Dead Calm to remember why Nicole Kidman is such a good actress.

Interesting Observation
Did you see the lady who played Farmer Hogget's wife in Babe and Babe : Pig In The City?

She was Lyra's ermmm nanny (?), Mrs Lonsdale at Jordan College aka Oxford. Her real name is Magda Szubanski.

I find that immensely interesting simply because there are so many familar faces. Let's see...

LOTR gang
Christopher Lee (the man of trilogies I tell you)
Sir Ian McKellan

Worked with Daniel Craig as lover
Eva Green for Casino Royale
Derek Jacobi for Love Is The Devil
Nicole Kidman for The Invasion

The deleted scene
Which ironically was ripped from the upcoming game. Major spoiler but not much since you will have to read the book to know what happened next. Elements of it can be seen in the extended trailer. Just look for a clean shaven Daniel Craig.



The official trailer


Fantastic Stuff
Check out the official website for your personalized daemon in About the film > Meet your daemon, check out the 1st 5 min of the film in Lyra's World, some nice wallpapers and play the alethiometer.

And in Lyra's World, find the character of Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. There is a play button on each photo and in each clip you will find an audio clip with Daniel Craig reading a passage from the 1st book describing Lord Asriel's feelings and encounter with the seductive Marisa Coulterand of Nicole Kidman reading a passage describing Mrs Coulter's feelings for Lord Asriel. A must hear if you can find the link.



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