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The Golden Compass

An Obsessive Compulsive Review of The Golden Compass (with spoilers)

So as part of my spontaneous invitation from our noble website admins to join them for the press coverage of The Golden Compass movie, I was honoured to be blagged into the second London press-screening of the film, which means I get to see the whole thing before everyone else. Kick ass.
I've kept the seat of my trousers firmly on the fence over the whole film thing ever since it started getting serious about three years ago, since any factual information on what's going to be in the film and what isn't seems to see-saw on a weekly basis.
I'm a great advocator of free speech, and I wanted to see all the religious stuff go into the film, but at the same time, I can appreciate that some of it has to be lost for the transition to succeeded in not bankrupting New Line. They had quite a challenge ahead of them.
So, I've been in a private cinema, I've seen it, and... I liked it.
It's not so simple as to one-line it like that though, so I'll cut to the chase now.

Main Characters

I'll start with the characters in general, which means talking about Lyra. We've all seen the pictures of her, and we've heard of this little first-time actor Dakota Blue Richards. I was apprehensive of Lyra, since I had a pretty good image of her from the books, but I'll say this clean and clear that Lyra was fantastic. There are times when some lame one-line statements were put in her mouth, and she sounds like an inexperienced child actor, but as soon she smiles, I can see Lyra on the screen immediately, she was that good.
For any sceptics, you'll get your impressions within the first 10 minutes of the film, since the first scene (discounting the intro), is that of Lyra, Roger, Billy and various other Oxford urchins playing in the streets, as is dictated at the start of the book, and Lyra is every bit a leader, aristocrat, and liar as she is supposed to be. They even managed to slide in an invented, but very Lyra-esque horror story that she tells to the townies, and she sounds just like Lyra of the book sounds. It's brilliant.
As I mentioned, she does have a few one-line sentences here and there to explain certain elements of the story which are getting missed out, I'll come to that later, but this is the fault of a bad line, not a bad actor.
In front of adults, she's the innocent little child, in front of Mrs. Coulter, she's the charmed, but still defiant girl, and in front of children, she's the elitist leader.
The children themselves lost a lot of screen time, owing to the fact that the adults are more interesting actors, but the time they do get is realistic, but has a faint ring of Harry Potter to it, but this is somewhat unavoidable, owing to the number of scenes in the Harry Potter films involving a crowd of children.
But in the favour of story adjustments, the Bolvangar escape scene from the book involving the snowball fight with the Tartar guards was ditched, leaving us with a crowd of children greatly intimidated by the guards, not heroic twelve-year-olds fighting grown soldiers. Certainly a scene of the book I wasn't heart-broken to loose.
This brings us to the charmer of the children, Mrs. Coulter, whom everyone was dying to see after the great cheer of excitement following the announcement of Kidman's casting. This injection of a greatly experienced actress into the fray is doubtless the icing of an excellent cake, her performance as the ruthless Marisa is nothing short of five-star. She has the steel and the sweetness of Mrs. Coulter, and she switches to the correct aura exactly on cue. To jump to one of the best examples in the book, the shoulder bag scene where the Golden Monkey attacks Pantalaimon was excellently done, and this, of course, is the first time we see Mrs. Coulter's evil side, and she smiled all the way through it, while the Golden Monkey did her evil deeds.
Her sexual manipulation was clearly visible, yet not cheap, just the simple compelling nature of her character.
Her counterpart, the mystery man that is Lord Asriel, was a bit of a fleeting glimpse. It's an unfortunate fact that Asriel, while integral to the story, is actually a supporting character at best, and such was this visible in the Golden Compass that they had to fabricate a non-existent action scene on Svalbard so we see him for more than five minutes in the entire film.
I liked what I did see of him though, like in the book, Daniel Craig portrays his power through body language and dominating the conversation, which he does so excellently. There is the particular scene in the retiring room where he stares down Fra Pavel after told that his theory is heresy, and there's a faint smile on his face that shows that he knows he's got the respect and authority to talk back.
There's sadly not much more we can say for the time being, since he doesn't have enough screen time to get to know him.
Sam Elliot came into the story as Lee Scorsby with the same backing as Kidman, and just as she slipped into her role naturally, Scorsby has just the laconic attitude that he does in the book. The accent is spot on, and his body language follows the book to the letter, which personally is exactly what I want to see in this film trilogy.
The scene of him with his hand cannon against the magisterial soldier exemplifies his character and acting superbly.
Serafina Pekala (Eva Green) and the rest of the witches quite simply all looked identical, and really lacked dæmons. New Line sadly took advantage of their separation trait here to avoid having to make more dæmons, and I think any cleaver fan will see straight through this ruse.
Like Asriel, Serafina lacks any major screen time, but owing to her distant personality, is unable to have quite the same impact as Craig did in her short time under the spotlight. Once again though, I think it's fair to say that this was down to bad scripting rather than bad acting. She was very witch-like, and had the Wild air around her, but with so little focus, we didn't really learn much about the witches, although they do get a nice big part in the Bolvangar fight.
Next up were the Gyptians, whose noble culture that was so well documented in the book, was sadly lacking in the film. Since their primary function is to provide a Good Side army, someone decided that their culture wasn't too important to the story, despite the fact that it's in the book to highlight Lyra's contrasting character. But the two important people got their due share of screen time, that is, Lord John Faa and Farder Coram. Both were portrayed precisely to the book's description, and they both had their correct lines too, including Faa's heroic promise to punish the Gobblers.
Most of the key Gyptian scenes were ditched, and to save of characters, Tony Makarios was entirely replaced with Billy Costa, who meets his untimely demise instead. This at first, struck me as a merciless butchery of a main character, but in all fairness, Billy was a highlighted character in the book whom doesn't actually have any use, except being Ma Costa's son. The plus point of this character switch is also that Billy is a character Lyra knows, and he's introduced at the start, so we can have someone to be sad about.
Or we should have, but I thought the actual gravity of seeing Billy without his demon doesn't really phase any of the characters enough as it should have, or does in the book.
Moving onto the main villain, Those that Be decided to insert Fra Pavel to be the primary representative of the Magisterium. I had a major problem with this when I heard of it several months ago, since for those of you who don't know, Fra Pavel is supposed to be the Consistorial Court of Discipline's alethiometrist, and is at best a side character who is present at the start of the third book for the reader to gather information. But he's been dragged into a main character position, and, by use of impressive foresight; my colleagues and I noticed that his dæmon is a green backed beetle, which in the books is the dæmon of the assassin Father Gomez. It's not hard to predict that Fra Pavel will replace this character as well. This is fair enough, since creating a single representative of the church eliminates quite a few other characters that are just more names to remember, but most of us folks on site here and I are agreement that there were many other characters from the Magisterium who would fit the role much better- Luis Gomez himself would've have been perfect for the job, even if he's not supposed to come in until The Amber Spyglass. Fra Pavel is not a strong enough character in the book for the job.
We saw some other sinister characters of the Magisterium as well, including an unnamed, but unmistakable Lord Boreal (recognised by the camera focusing on a snake dæmon), and another authoritative figure whom we speculate to be Father McPhail. We don't have any basis for that one, but it would make perfect sense.
Finally, we have the armoured bears. Or Ice Bears. Armoured was apparently too complicated.
Luckily, the introduction of Iorek was very impressive, and Farder Coram was at least intelligent to use the name of Panserbjorn.
Iorek himself was well proportioned and moved excellently. He stood on his hind legs to act like a human, and dropped onto all fours to act like a wild bear. Ian McKellen's voice had all of Gandalf's booming power in Iorek's flat tones, and was loud enough to not sound like a man in a suit, or a horrible overlay. I feared the horrible voice over that was Marvin in the Hitch Hiker movie, but this wasn't the case, and Iorek sounded great. I was a little disappointed by the lack of fighting from him, I was eagerly awaiting some scenes of epic ass-kicking, but in the face of a 12a, it seems they had to nerf him slightly to some more implied violence. He's still big and scary none the less though.
Ragnar Sturlusson (that's Iorfur Raknisson in book-speak), sounded much more human, which is accurate enough, but he was a little too quite for my liking.
His arrogance and pretentiousness was clear though, and Iorek smites him just as the book dictates.
The other bears of Svalbard seemed to loose out on the budget lottery though, they neither spoke independently or as a group, even after Iorek booms out his victory cry of "Who is your King?!"
It begs the question that it can't have been too much trouble to have a crowd yell Iorek Byrnison in chorus.

The Dæmons

One of my biggest fears, and doubtless the fear of many, is that having a dæmon with every single person on set would make the entire film a zoo, but while there were a few scenes that start toeing this line, mostly the dæmons fitted into each picture perfectly, and the level of CG really shone in the quality of the animals. The transformations are seamless, to quote the books, they happen in the flick of an eye.
But while the CG was great, I found most of the dæmons sadly lacking in focus. Pantalaimon gets his fair share, as do the other essential dæmons, but a lot of the others, including Hester, get one or two lines or one or two camera shots at most, which implies laziness I think.
There were one or two catastrophic (strong words ahoy!) dæmon failures I felt, one of which I'll describe because it was the only moment in the film I felt there was a genuine mistake. There is a scene where Marisa Coulter is travelling to Svalbard on a Zeppelin, and she's looking wistfully at a photograph of Lyra. The Golden Monkey pulled the photograph away, and she slaps him clean off the table. This could have been an excellent time for her to show some self loathing, which would coincide perfectly with her effectively hitting herself, but my personal interpretation here was that it was spite for the Monkey trying to pull the photograph away, and it severely undermined the acting of human-dæmon connection earlier in the film, which worked well.
I also felt that the dæmons (particularly Pantalaimon) seemed disparagingly uninformed considering the mental connection to their humans. This for me was best illustrated with Lyra's reading of the Alethiometer, were as she can read it but Pan can't, and he on several occasions asked her what it had said. This is probably opinion, but I felt that in the books, Pan could read the Alethiometer in everyway that Lyra could, and the reading was a joint understanding.
I also felt that they were at time treated as a possession of the human, rather than as equals, but this is a tricky interpretation because humans so rarely address a dæmon.
It must be said though, that over all I liked the dæmons, or at least they weren't rubbish. I was adamant that if the dæmons were wrong, the entire film would be ruined, since they're visible in every frame. This wasn't the case.

Story changes

There were no really disparaging story changes in the film, that is, ones that were unnecessary, but I had this general impression that the script was skipping every other chapter in the book, since here were plenty of dropped scenes.
Most stories are generally sequences joined together by transitions. So you take a scene like Lyra overhearing the discussion in the Bolvangar staff room about the experiments, which is followed by the intercision scene. The transition in the middle is the men taking her through the corridors, and the description of the Silver Guillotine.
These transitions were near non-existent, and while this sounds like a justifiable loss, it started to tell when major parts of the story were lost, such as Lyra's learning of the Alethiometer during her voyage to the north wit the Gyptians. In the book, it takes weeks for her to learn the Alethiometer, and this required time space is filled with the boat journey. Unfortunately, by all appearances in the film, Lyra can apparently read the instrument to accurate guesswork on her first attempt. This severely weakens a great learning story that in the book shows the start of Lyra learning to calm down and be patient.
Another noticeable change is the droppage of the Cocktail Party, which is replaced by Lyra poking around Marisa's private room and very easily discovering incriminating evidence of her work for the Magisterium. One could arguer that the creation of this scene would've been no harder than the party, only this was cheaper, but a lot of information is lost with the Cocktail Party gone, including, but not limited to; Asriel's arrest, a better connection between Marisa and the Gobblers (Lyra's was an amazingly accurate guess), and also the early introduction to Lord Boreal.
The biggest story change everyone will notice is the event order switch between Bolvangar and Svalbard. The Samoyed hunters that capture her from the Gyptians take her directly to Ragnar Sturlusson, and the bear fight scene ensues. This seemed at first like a shocking acceleration of the story, but actually cuts out a sizable sidestep in her trip and allows the film to contain more action and less travelling. It seems harsh, but I can see the logic and it worked.
There was one story change which I see the reason for, but I severely disapprove of; Iorek's exile was apparently a result of him loosing single combat to Ragnar, which I couldn't disagree with more, since it implies weakness in Iorek. And personally, Iorek's power lies in the fact that he is never doubted or belittled, and loosing a fight in his past isn't too impressive I think.
The logic behind I'd say is that this history is much easier to understand than the actual sequence of events, and it also generates a great deal of vengeance between Iorek and Ragnar. But while logical, it still belittles Iorek.

Lyra's World

They did a natty little prologue at the start of the film that was narrated by Serafina Pekala, and introduced the idea of parallel worlds. The idea being that the audience wouldn't suffer immediate and acute culture shock of being thrown into Lyra's world, but personally, this was one of the parts of the book that I loved the most, such is the skill of Pullman's introduction of Lyra's world, that we don't need an explanation, or even a Traveller character, but are left to work it out and leap in the majesty of several fundamentally different aspects of humanity.
While it might save some undue musing of the audience, I can't help but feel this was part of the 'dumbing down' process.
This prologue included a window from our world to Lyra's, which was a little tacky I felt, I'll elaborate on this in the CG chapter.
The architecture and feel of Lyra's world was very accurate to my interpretation, but some major additions were made, namely in the technology. It's immediately obvious that Lyra's world is powered by some arcane technology that would be the equivalent of our internal combustion engine, but while most of it's implementations look too good to good to disapprove of, there were a few inserts that were clearly flamboyant use of CG. I'm scowling at the carriage that Lyra is seen in upon arriving in London here, the front wheel of which is comprised of a single, floating gyroscope that has no visible means of power or thrust. This blatant disregard for realistic physics was unnecessary.
We can also see this with Lee's airship (yes, it's been turned into an airship rather than a balloon), whose gasbags seem to be inflated by these strange looking gyros as well.
If such flamboyance is all we have to worry about in the film, I think we can forgive them a little, but I can't help but feel that such technology that would have firm roots in fundamental physics would be frowned upon by the Magisterium, just as the Church didn't like people saying the world was round.

Camera work

The cameras were a definite like, there were a lot of close-ups of the better facial expressions from Lyra and Mrs. Coulter in particular, and the landscapes were breath taking, two of my favourites being the London cityscape, which had a loose Final Fantasy feel to is, based on it's spires and elaborate architecture, and the Lost Boy scene, which featured a lone fishing hut rather than a village, but a desolate frozen lake and a shack that takes no further imagination to become haunted.
Unfortunately, I did feel that while wide-angle room views and panoramas were in beautiful abundance, they lacked some of the detail shots of the rooms and entities. Many of the props, such as the Silver Guillotine were marvellous creations that deserved several close ups and showing-off for our pleasure, but didn't get it. This ties in with my remarks on the missing transitions, the detail that occupies pages of the book was axed for more screen time, and as great as the environments are, it shows because we don't get to see them.

Computer Generated stuff

The CG graphics were for the majority of the film, worth every hundred-million-or-so British pennies that were spent on them. But while spectacular, it's just as righteous to say that not all of the work was well placed. A few examples spring to mind, such as the window featured in the prologue, which doesn't really look anything like the Subtle Knife's description of one (it's much like a single-line slash in the 'fabric' of the universe). It looked nice, but had more of a special-effects feel to it, rather than the strange, unexplainable rend in metaphysics.
Another slip I wasn't keep on was a conceptually great shot of the front of the London Zeppelin, which tragically looked very plastic instead of metal and glass. It was a tricky view, owing to the bright colours, but perhaps it may have been worth ditching a difficult shot rather than doing it badly?
The smoothing between the CG and photographic elements, however, was excellently handled I thought, at no point did I really think that the dæmons or armoured bears were digitally entered into the picture, such was the actor interaction with them.
The big bear fight was not only smooth and epic, but also falls onto the limited, but sizable pile of scenes that followed the book well. The general choreography was as the book scripts it, and includes Iorek's trickery. This part was somewhat weakened by the lack of the Fencing chapters- see my remarks about the missing transitional scenes.

The God Thing

There are no direct religious references. There are some indirect hints for those who know the books and are looking for them; Lyra looks at Mrs. Coulter's ornately painted ceiling, which features angels and other religious characters. She also sees a sculpture of some kind of minister or religious figure on the wall of the private study.
The Magisterium can easily be seen as being church-like in it's structure and influence, but is never refereed to as the church, nor it's members referred to as ministers. Mrs. Coulter does tell Lyra about The Authority, but apart from the name, there is no supporting information at all, and no suggestion of a super natural being. At present, it's anyone's guess as to how long they can maintain religious silence. We're unlikely to find out until The Amber Spyglass as well, since that's probably the first time when the religious implications ramp up sufficiently as to be inconsolable. Angels are going to be difficult to explain without religious implications, since they are supernatural even to Lyra, who is familiar with Dust, let alone Will.

The Ending

The ending was as we've heard of late, and concluded with Lyra, Roger, Iorek and Lee flying towards Asriel. The actual scene was that of the book's flying to Svalbard chapter, but since they moved Bolvangar to Svalbard, this scene itself was displaced as well.
Since this seen is a choke point on the story line, that is very little is happening that hasn't already been explained, it worked well to finish up here though it does seem that they've cut off the most dramatic scene in the entire book. Let's hope it gets shown in full at the start of the Subtle Knife.

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