“There are worlds beyond our own”
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials are amongst my favourite novels ever, and the National Theatre’s adaptation of the stories into a two-part play was a stunning interpretation that also ranks amongst my all-time favourites (I also trekked to Bath to see a youth theatre production and to the Lowry for a touring version). So the news of a film version of the first story, The Golden Compass (as it was renamed for the North American market from its original title Northern Lights) left me quite excited, though a little trepidatious at how Pullman’s writing would survive the Hollywood machine.
As it turns out, it didn’t really. Studio politics, script issues and intense pressure from Catholic organisations meant that the project had a most difficult genesis and creative process, Chris Weitz ending up writing and directing despite leaving the project and several other people working on it. So the tale of Lyra Belacqua’s brave journeying to the frozen north in a parallel universe to rescue her friend Roger as the mysterious Lord Asriel sets about a discovery that will challenge the highest Authority in the land which is so incredibly rich and detailed in the novel loses depth and magic to become just another special effects-laden fantasy flick.
There’s no doubting that Pullman’s tale is a dense and complex one: the opening narration tries to set up the overarching themes of the grander arcs which play out across the trilogy but in essence, it just ends up being too reductive an interpretation, stripped of much of its depth and consequently lacking a sense of connection between the different strands. The effects work is often beautifully realised in its alternative grandeur but there’s perhaps a little too much focusing on the visual, especially with all the travelling that’s done, making it all feel a bit superficial.
Acting-wise, it isn’t bad at all though, especially from a thespian point of view. Clare Higgins as charismatic gypsy clan leader Ma Costa finds a beautiful empathy with Lyra, Simon McBurney’s sibilant Fra Pavel simmers with evil élan, Eva Green’s willowy presence makes an ideal Serafina Pekkala though I would have loved to have seen more of her and the other witches and it has to be said that Nicole Kidman shimmers as Mrs Coulter, a complex motherly villainess and it is a real shame we won’t get to see her play the full range of the character across the trilogy. Daniel Craig has surprisingly little to do in the film as Lord Asriel and little interaction with the others, Ian McKellen – a late replacement in the cast at the behest of the studio – voices Iorek Byrnison with his usual skill but to my ears, sounds a little too old and weathered for the part.
There’s also the tiniest of appearances from a vast range of talents: Derek Jacobi as an emissary of the Authority, Kristin Scott Thomas voices Asriel’s daemon Stelmaria though is hardly used, Jason Watkins and Hattie Morahan pop up briefly as sinister employees at the terrible facility at Bolvangar, and Elliot Cowan and Sam Hoare also make short appearances as soldiers at the end. Christopher Lee’s appearance really is blink-and-miss-him, most likely victim of the cuts around the depiction of religion. And as the lead children, Dakota Blue Richards’ perky urchin-like Lyra is tempered well by Ben Walker’s quietly graceful Roger.
At the time, I was so determined to love the film that I convinced myself that I liked it; returning to it now, I see that I was kidding myself. The desire to create a family-friendly cookie-cutter Hollywood blockbusting franchise just simply isn’t compatible with the epic, multi-layered story that Pullman is telling here and so the film falls flat. It also suffers a little from being the first part of a trilogy that was never made and so there’s a personal frustration at not getting to see the rest of the story and indeed the tragic final part of Northern Lights (which certainly isn’t family-friendly!), assumedly to give this a happy ending. Altogether though, this was a big disappointment to me.