Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
Nearly two decades after the publication of the final installation of the renowned His Dark Materials trilogy, British author Philip Pullman has published La Belle Sauvage, the first book in a new trilogy that serves as a prequel to the events of His Dark Materials. In La Belle Sauvage, our protagonist Lyra is just an infant, and it is a kindhearted boy who takes her under his wing. But the ominous threat of the Magisterium already looms large. However, I wasn’t feeling totally immersed in the story. I wanted to be instantly transported back to this fascinating and fearsome alternate universe, so I enlisted a little help from the silver screen.
The Golden Compass (directed and written by Chris Weitz, co-writer of Rogue One) was released in theaters in 2007, while the Harry Potter movies were in the midst of making a couple billion dollars at the box office. It was undoubtedly believed that other adaptations would follow The Golden Compass, given the widespread appreciation for the Potter films as well as the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, developed by the same production company that picked up The Golden Compass. Indeed, the film ended on such a gutsy cliffhanger that it seemed to all but guarantee a sequel. But a troubled pre-production presaged lackluster reviews when the movie finally hit theaters, and plans for any future movies were reduced to… well, dust.
Which is a shame, because The Golden Compass is a wild ride of magic, mystique, and gorgeous visuals (the film won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Visual Effects) – with some healthy doses of religious heresy fueling the entire plot, of course.
As the Bible preaches: we were made from dust, and to dust we shall return. The Golden Compass also begins with Dust: glittering particles make up a stunning montage as this strange new world is introduced in a succinct, intriguing opening narration. In the world of The Golden Compass, humans walk beside their souls, which take animal forms called daemons (literal spirit animals), and Dust is a cosmic substance that connects all living things. It is also a world in which the Magisterium, an overt metaphor for the most draconian elements of organized religion, rules with an iron fist – and the Magisterium has prohibited even the mention of Dust, believing it could undermine the Magisterium’s hold on the people of this world.
The Magisterium’s nefarious schemes are examined over the course of the film, but its rigid, theological worldview is established quite early on. Enter: lionhearted explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) along with his snow leopard daemon, Stelmaria (voiced by Kristin Scott Thomas). Asriel convenes a group of scholars to present his findings from the North: a photogram that depicts the transfer of Dust from another universe into a man from this one through his daemon. Asriel proclaims that he is off to investigate these other universes and to verify the existence of Dust. “That’s heresy!” one man proclaims. “That’s the truth,” Asriel shoots back, undaunted.
Meanwhile, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) hides in a closet with her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by a prepubescent Freddie Highmore), eavesdropping on her uncle’s impassioned presentation. Afterwards, she begs Asriel to take her with him to the North, away from Jordan College, the scholarly institution that raised her, and towards adventure and excitement. Despite the brevity of their scenes together, it is clear that they share not only a thirst for adventure, but also a dangerous rebellious streak. Asriel tries to hide his amusement while not-so-gently denying her request. Fortunately, Lyra will get her wish soon enough, while Asriel becomes sidelined for much of the film. (A sad underuse of Daniel Craig, to be sure.)
It is Mrs. Coulter who grants Lyra’s request to travel to the North. Mrs. Coulter, played to sinister perfection by the elegant Nicole Kidman, sweeps into the hall of Jordan College during dinnertime in a glittering gold gown that matches the hue of her silent, conniving monkey daemon. She woos Lyra by promising her what most children really want: the trust and respect of adults. But Lyra soon discovers that there’s more to this maternal figure than meets the eye, and Mrs. Coulter doesn’t want to help her – she wants to control her.
Lyra, our plucky, fiery heroine, is having none of that. Earlier in the film she defiantly declares that she’s “not a lady,” and now that she’s off on her own, she’s the one calling the shots. Lyra is presented as a bit of a Mary Sue, though the film tries to explain away her natural abilities and successes by bestowing upon her a “chosen one” label. Even so, it’s intensely gratifying to see this little girl treated with the respect she so plainly covets. She’s picked up by some friendly “gyptians,” and they hang on her every word when they discover that she’s in possession of the last alethiometer, a golden compass (title alert!) that works mysteriously through Dust and can reveal any Truth that is asked of it. Lyra is the only one who can interpret it, but don’t worry – she uses this power for good.
Dakota Blue Richards is a fierce and alluring actor, and she certainly holds her own against the cast of heavyweights that populate this film. The adults are truly wonderful as well – Kidman is both frightening and elegant, Sam Elliott turns on his thousand-watt charm as a Texan auronaut (with Kathy Bates voicing his stern daemon Hester), and Christopher Lee thrills in a split-second role as a high councilor of the Magisterium with his usual bad-guy glee.
The familiar voices of two booming baritones are key to The Golden Compass as well: Ian McKellen plays the displaced Ice Bear King Iorek Byrnison, and Ian McShane is his usurper, Ragnar. When they clash, the visual effects that earned this film an Oscar are on full display. In The Golden Compass, action scenes like this one are viscerally wrought but also full of magic, as buoyed by the accompanying score from veteran fantasy guru Alexandre Desplat.
The daemons are also seamlessly integrated into both the visuals and the narrative itself. From a storytelling standpoint, daemons can shed light on their humans’ characters in a way that feels organic, such as when Pantalaimon expresses fear but Lyra plows courageously ahead, or when Mrs. Coulter smacks her monkey daemon in a moment of self-hatred. Visually, the daemons serve as a reminder that this world is similar to our own but different in key ways. Production designer Dennis Gassner (who recently earned a huge bump in prestige for his work on Blade Runner 2049) intersperses both subtle and blatant oddities within Lyra’s universe: the retro-futuristic shapes of vehicles, the presence of airships, green flames in a fireplace, and opulence that is tinged with menace. In short, The Golden Compass is a paradigm of immersive world-building.
The ominous specter of the Magisterium contributes to the sense of eerie normalcy most of all. Pullman’s novels are unapologetically harsh when it comes to criticizing any ruling religious authority, but the film version of The Golden Compass wisely pulls back on explicit mentions of “the Church” and instead sets up a convincing metaphor and allows viewers to fill in the blanks. Ironically, even that was enough to garner the wrath of real-life religious authorities, which is perhaps one of the reasons the subsequent movies in this series were never made. Now that’s a convincingly realistic story.