Go North, Young Lady
Much about The Golden Compass still remains shrouded in mystery to me -- especially the parts about parallel universes and the power of dust -- but I admire the movie’s spunky young heroine and her courageous efforts to save children kidnapped by a powerful organization called the Magisterium. Ambitious in its scope and difficult to follow, this film is based on the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Mind-boggling special effects -- plus an immensely exciting fight between giant bears in the snowy North -- help to make up for the fantasy’s dark theme and meandering plot.
We first meet Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old orphan, as she plays with her friends outside the grounds of Jordan College, her current home. We can tell there’s something special about the girl, and Richards captures our interest right away with her intelligent, energetic performance. The young actress won this role over 10,000 girls who auditioned to play Lyra. No wonder, for Richards is really something. She reminds me of a young Cate Blanchett -- so genuine, so watchable -- despite the fantastic things happening to her character throughout the film.
Playtime soon becomes a thing of the past for Lyra, who discovers a plot against her uncle (Daniel Craig). She also finds herself in the midst of a battle between scientific thought and authoritarian control as she heads North to rescue her friend Roger (Ben Walker) and other missing children. Fortunately, Lyra is not alone on this mission. Among her helpers are: Texas airman Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott); the beautiful flying witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green); Iorek Byrnison, a huge white armored bear (voiced superbly by Ian McKellen); and a strange group called the gyptians. Lyra also takes with her a mysterious golden compass that’s been placed in her possession. Called an Alethiometer, it’s a kind of truth machine, but Lyra must first figure out how to read it. Forces standing in Lyra’s way include Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who’s VERY interested in that compass, and the vast resources of the Magisterium.
I almost forgot to mention all the daemons here. In Lyra’s world, every person has a daemon, an animal representing their soul, assigned to them. "You can't go wrong with talking animals," my husband said while leaving the theater. He might be right, but the daemons of children frequently change form here, so it’s quite confusing for viewers -- and I suspect this element in the movie presented a big challenge for the special effects folks.
Filled with many incredible sights -- including highly unusual flying machines, a child riding a giant white bear across snowy terrain, Sam Elliott’s craggily charismatic face, and an eye-popping wardrobe for Nicole Kidman -- The Golden Compass has enough going for it to forgive its faults. However, this sometimes incoherent movie may not win over young children nor impatient members of the audience. Hopefully, the two upcoming sequels will do a better job explaining Lyra’s parallel universe. We’re definitely hooked now -- and we want our admirable heroine to succeed in her important battles against intolerance and cruelty -- but we’d like to understand what’s going on better than we do at the end of this first installment.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated “PG-13” for sequences of fantasy violence.)