Deja Review: "The Golden Compass"

Welcome to Deja Review, where we look back on classic films, well known or otherwise. This week, we’ll be looking at one of the greatest overlooked fantasy films, The Golden Compass, whose unjust controversy was dwarfed only by its vision.

The Golden Compass is a marvelous film marred by ignorant controversy. It’s darker than other fantasy films (particularly the saccharine Potter series and the diametrically opposed Narnia series), it has a more grey moral system, and it’s far more beautiful visually. It explores interesting themes of innocence, original sin, the separation of church and state, and relativism of truth. It’s based on one of the best fantasy series of all time, a series written in direct response to the spiritualistic nature of fantasy, particularly the overtly religious Chronicles of Narnia.

The film tells us the story of Lyra Belaqua, a young girl who lives at Jordon College in Oxford – an Oxford, that is, in an alternate universe. It’s a world that bears many similarities to ours, but one that has several pronounced differences. Electrical devices are called “anbaric”, zeppelins are preferred to planes, photographs are instead vaguely hologram-like depictions called photograms, and the Catholic Church is instead a strange organization called the Magisterium.

Oh, and in this world, people’s souls are actually familiars known as daemons, which take the form of animals.

These daemons are the subject of much interest, it seems, as Lyra learns (by eavesdropping on Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel, her uncle) that the adults in this world are concerned about a strange substance known as Dust which appears to originate from their daemons. What exactly Dust is remains shrouded in uncertainty, but Lord Asriel seems confident that it can form a bridge to parallel worlds – a concept that the Magisterium deems heresy. Asriel responds, in typical Craig gravitas, “That… is the truth.”

At the same time, the kids of the world are concerned about a mysterious group called the Gobblers who kidnap children in the night. One of the film’s better ideas was to introduce this grave concern of the children’s though – of course – a glorified game of tag. It’s a wonderfully innocent way to set up a plot point, which given the film’s ideas, is key. One of the kids, a “Gyptian” boy (Gyptians are essentially kind pirates, though they take on the role of a racial group rather than an occupational one; one that appears persecuted, at that) named Billy Costa, is kidnapped along with Lyra’s friend from the kitchens at Jordon, Roger.

It’s all an incredibly interesting start to what will become a very satisfying adventure film. The film leaves this bit of intrigue hanging in the air as it introduces Nicole Kidman’s Miss Coulter, an intimidating femme fatale who seems to have all of the men at Jordon College in her pocket. She whisks Lyra away with her – but before leaving, the Master of Jordon entrusts Lyra with the titular “golden compass”, which is in fact a device called an alethiometer, which tells the truth. The Mater makes Lyra promise to keep it a secret, particularly from Coulter. Hmm, more intrigue.

Coulter takes Lyra back home with her (the travel scene is particularly visually impressive; the vision of Pullman’s world is realized very well, with delightfully inventive modes of travel all over the place) to train Lyra for… well, we’re not quite sure exactly. Lyra is essentially a girl toy that stands next to Coulter and looks pretty. Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon (Pan), begin to feel as if they are in prison. She naturally goes searching through Coulter’s things, and finds some incriminating evidence.

Coulter is the head of the General Oblation Board, which the film points out (with some chuckle-worthy dialogue), is the source of the term “Gobblers” – G.O.B. With the knowledge that Coulter is behind the Gobblers, Lyra and Pan opt to flee. On the run, they encounter the mother of Billy Costa, Ma Costa, and travel with the Gyptians. The Gyptians, in order to rescue the children that had been taken from them, decide to travel to the North – a somewhat nebulous region fraught with peril.

The film kicks into high gear there, and begins offering resolution to the many bits of intrigue it sets up over its first hour. Among its most exciting moments are a duel between talking ice bears (panserbjorn) which is decidedly PG-13 for a film potentially aimed at kids, and an intense moment in which the Oblation Board (which, if you’re familiar with the term oblation, is fairly obviously an attack against the church) almost does unspeakable things to Lyra. The final battle is visually wonderful to behold, swapping blood for the flashy explosion of daemons into Dust upon the death of their humans.

What ultimately elevates The Golden Compass above most modern fantasy is that it has more on its mind than telling an interesting story. While Philip Pullman clearly had attacking the church on his mind when writing the source novel, Northern Lights, the film dials down the religious subtext and deals with more basic, universal ideas such as the loss of innocence. More than your average fantasy, the film portrayed that well.

Now, I can’t talk about this movie without talking about the controversy surrounding it. There was much distress in the Catholic Church at the time this film was released, as they seemed to consider the film a threat to them because the book series it is based on was written by a strong atheist who stated that it was intended as an attack. That’s fair. What’s not fair is their slanderous campaign against the film, including chain e-mails, protesters in front of the theaters showing the film, and television appearances, all claiming that the film’s characters “kill God”. An institution so insecure about their belief that they must attack detractors with slanderous campaigns, crushing financial performance and preventing all hope for a sequel? Hey – that sounds exactly like the Church as depicted in the novel.

Controversy aside – The Golden Compass is an engaging, intriguing film that is more ponderous and exciting than most fantasy fare. That it was overlooked is a great crime, as it has a lot more to say than one might think at first glance.

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