Forget the religious controversy. The most striking thing about The Golden Compass is that it’s a dud.
The Odeon cinema on Oxford’s George Street is a dull, uninspiring place.
The route there isn’t: over Magdalen Bridge, up High Street, down New College Lane, under the Bridge of Sighs, past the Sheldonian Theatre, and along beside the massive walls of Balliol. This is Philip Pullman’s real Oxford, and one wonders what Oxford’s second most famous atheist has been missing all these years in the shadows of the dreaming spires.
You see in Oxford, things are surely just as we would want them. In the real Oxford, Pullman’s Church (depicted in the fictional Oxford as the oppressive Magisterium) and University (the noble, free intellect of the don-ish Lord Asriel) are manifestly not at odds. It’s true that down the road from the Odeon a memorial reminds passers-by of the Oxford martyrs, Protestants burned at the stake by Bloody Mary, but this is all ancient history. Good old (non-oppressive) Anglican Oxford has sponsored a church-university détente which extends back as far as is historically useful. In Christian England at least, Pullman’s atheistic polemic is unnecessary — there is no Magisterium here. Religion does not poison everything and it certainly does not poison Oxford. Which is all to say that I’m glad that the movie version of The Golden Compass has blurred the book’s anti-religion edges.
Shame, then, that the movie is otherwise rubbish.
The Golden Compass narrates Lord Asriel’s (Daniel Craig) quest for Dust and the Magisterium’s mission (led by Nicole Kidman’s Mrs Coulter) to eradicate it. With the golden compass in hand, a young Oxford girl called Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) finds herself drawn into a world of gypsies (“gyptians”), polar bear-kings, witches, and parallel worlds in an attempt to thwart Coulter and the Magisterium. Dust is the residue of the Fall and represents the effects of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Dust, according to the Magisterium, is bad.
Northern Lights (the book’s British title) is rich in Miltonian mythology and cosmology. The film offers us a Spark Notes version, annoyingly shallow and told only via awkward snippets of expositional dialogue. For no good reason, characters blurt out lines of back-story in a clumsy attempt to educate the viewer as we rush from one limp set-piece to another. Believe me, kids who haven’t read the books will have no idea what is going on.
Visually, Chris Weitz has delivered only a mediocre affair. The steampunk world of Lyra’s England is interesting at first, but quickly, um, runs out of steam as we move to the Arctic. And the movie ends so abruptly that you fear they ran out of money.
On the bright side, Richards is brilliant as Lyra and you suspect she’ll be even better in the The Subtle Knife (although she’ll look weirdly older). I hope they make more films if only because Pullman’s story is a good one. And there’s no question that despite the film’s shortcomings, TGC is a much better choice than Fred Claus this Christmas. Just don’t expect the Peter Jackson touch.
A note to Mormon parents: the movie is spiritually benign, if a little violent and cruel for little ones. If you’re worried that your kids might read the books, and if you find it offensive that someone should rail against the oppressive priestcrafts of religion, glory in the Fall, and mock the pathetic Nobadaddies invented by the uninspired mind, you are betraying the very soul of Mormonism. Boo. Pullman may be histrionic, but he is not your enemy.