Philip Pullman is not a great writer. He is a good children’s writer, granted. His Dark Materials is two thirds of a good trilogy for children. But, like J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown and the rest, he is only great if you haven’t read many books. His Dark Materials may deal with astrophysics, metaphysics, atheism and Paradise Lost, but that does not automatically make it worth reading. The same goes for the first big-screen adaptation of one of Pullman’s books. The Golden Compass might be smarter than Harry Potter, but that doesn’t make it The Unbearable Lightness of Being for ’tweens. It’s Narnia for atheists, no matter what Pullman says. Like the books, the best thing in it is the talking polar bears.
The story centres on a little girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards). She is an orphan, raised by the Dons at Oxford in a parallel universe. Lyra’s Oxford is much like the one we know from Inspector Morse, only here it is as if 1900 never ended, a world that decided to stick with the dirigible and the horse-drawn carriage. Lyra’s uncle is named Lord Asriel. He is played by Daniel Craig, so we can’t be sure if he’s a goodie or a baddie (Craig did once play Ted Hughes after all). Asriel comes to Oxford to announce he’s heading off on an expedition to the North Pole. He wants to study a phenomenon known as Dust that seems to point to the existence of other worlds (like ours). A kinda-Catholic-Church-type authority, called The Magisterium (so as to sound secular), doesn’t like the idea of Dust one little bit. Lyra (being an inquisitive kid) determines to follow Asriel.
What happens next involves Nicole Kidman, a monkey, several talking polar bears and a great many “daemons” (“daemons”, in Lyra’s world, are animals which manifest a person’s soul. Nicole Kidman’s “daemon”, for instance, is a monkey. The talking polar bears are just talking polar bears). To say all this is nonsense is beside the point. The world we see in the movie feels about as plausible as it needs to feel, and everyone acts like they belong, so – We go along for the ride. We follow Lyra to Norway, to the frozen wastes and magnetic North. We meet her friends: Iorek Byrnison, the talking bear who speaks with Gandalf’s voice; Serafina Pekkala, the sexy witch who looks like James Bond’s wife; Lee Scorseby, the cowboy (?). And Lyra’s “daemon”, Pantalaimon, who can be whatever he likes.
Dakota Blue Richards, in spite of her gormless name, delivers a good performance. She is not the sawn-off wooden plank that Daniel Radcliffe was when he started, and she can play wilful and selfish as well as stalwart and brave. In the books and the movie she comes across as more Punky Brewster than Harry Potter’s kid sister. It’s of benefit to a young actress not to have to be too innocent or sweet, and Lyra is the kind of role Jodie Foster would have excelled at back when Bugsy Malone marked the high-point of her career.
Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman have similar fun with their roles, playing up to the moral-vicissitudes in their characters, keeping the audience guessing. Kidman, though seemingly determined to star in every movie at the moment, is seductive and cruel enough to remind you she’s still a star for a reason. Watching her bewitch and intimidate Lyra in quick succession is fun the same way Angelica Huston was fun to watch as a witch (in The Witches); it’s like watching royalty be bad – seeing Princess Grace kick a puppy. Daniel Craig isn’t Bond in The Golden Compass, but he has Bond’s certainty, his blood-scented charisma. Asriel only appears in a handful of scenes in the movie, but he has a Captain Hook/Wendy affect on Lyra, inducing awe to quash her pluckiness.
So is The Golden Compass bad? Not bad, I’d say, just passable. It isn’t that His Dark Materials are bad books; they just aren’t all they’re cracked-up to be. Ours is an age where most people don’t read much, and any writer who’s semi-literate can be lauded as the next Dostoyevsky. But plaudits don’t make a man, and great expectations don’t make a movie. The Golden Compass does aim higher than Harry Potter, but with book’s atheism anaesthetised the story only shows as that much more kiddy. We’re in the land of talking polar bears, and sexy witches, and incongruous cowboys. It’s not an adult world; it’s Narnia. At least C.S. Lewis knew his books were for children.