Saturday, December 22, 2007

On watching The Golden Compass

Twice so far

Although last weekend was officially dedicated to the debut of Will Smith's I Am Legend: A Zombie Christmas, I chose instead to take in a second viewing of The Golden Compass. While it's fun to poke a finger in the eye of Bill Donohue and his boycott of the movie, I had some purer motives as well. Despite a mixed bag of reviews, I found it extremely enjoyable and simply wanted to see it again.

Many of the less enthusiastic reviewers found the movie disjointed and confusing. Was it really necessary to have read Philip Pullman's book first? If so, then the movie does not stand on its own and fails as an independent cinematic experience. I had read the books of His Dark Materials and thought everything in the movie fell into place rather well. On seeing it a second time, I made a point of watching more critically, and I think I have a clue why some people find it bewildering.

Although The Golden Compass is carefully crafted to hang together, it's the kind of movie that requires us to pay a little attention. Perhaps more than people are wont to give these days. The viewers most likely to fall into confusion are those who neither read the book nor gave the movie their full attention. Things move quickly most of the time. If a movie is mostly an opportunity to munch popcorn and gossip with friends, then it helps to choose a movie whose entertainment value is spectacle driven and not plot dependent. While it has its spectacular episodes, The Golden Compass is not a popcorn-chewing movie.

The opening narration jump-starts the movie by making it clear we're on an alternate Earth where people's souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animal companions called daemons. While playing at war with her companions, Lyra scornfully cites touching another's daemon with bare hands as an uncouth violation, at which all the children recoil in horror. Soon thereafter, while rooting about in the retiring room, Pantalaimon reminds Lyra that he fears she'll be caught and smacked, in which case he'll also feel the pain. No one has any cause to be confused or surprised when Lyra passes out during the scene in Bolvanger as the Gobblers seize her daemon, or when Mrs. Coulter wrings her hand in pain in the earlier scene where Lyra slams a window down on the hand of Coulter's monkey daemon.

The major threads of Lyra's world are reinforced in unforced repetition. Other items, interesting but not key to the plot, are passed over without comment. The power supplies that drive Mrs. Coulter's dirigible and Mr. Scoresby's aerostat are rendered in effective CGI, but no one comments on them. They don't drive the narrative and no time is spent discussing them. In fact, there are relatively few lectures in The Golden Compass, despite several opportunities for characters to prate at each other for our benefit about things that all the characters already know. Even Lord Asriel's discourse on dust at Jordan College is mercifully terse, and Mrs. Coulter's explanation to Lyra of the Magisterium's function is wonderfully straightforward in its saccharine simplicity (“they tell people what to do”).

Nicole Kidman is the ideal Marisa Coulter. Sleek and icy in her portrayal of Pullman's archvillainess, Kidman lets slip Coulter's thin veneer of sprightly affability whenever the target of Coulter's regard needs to see the dangerous steel that lurks just below the surface. No wonder Pullman begged her to take the role.

I've seen it said that the movie's plot is threadbare, but what is wrong with the theme of resistance against a despotic authority? This is a most timely message. In the character of Mrs. Coulter we also get to see the hypocrisy and internal inconsistency of authoritarian regimes: obedience of the rules and conformity to the standards are for others, not for those in charge. Mrs. Coulter is as impulsive and willful as she wants others not to be.

The world depicted in The Golden Compass has heft and solidity. It projects an alternate reality. Is it Pullman's reality? Many aficionados of the novels are dismayed that the cinematic incarnation of the first book has been toned down—even perhaps, bereft of its soul by a kind of literary intercision. The churchly aspects of the Magisterium are played down, making the movie less anticlerical than the books. Only one of the children victimized by the Gobblers is depicted after his intercision, and even in that case his friends and family insist they will find a way to restore him (although in the books such children pine away hopelessly and we see one die).

These things don't really matter. If Philip Pullman can endure them, so can I. The Golden Compass is a treat and worthy of one's attention, but only one's attention can make it the experience it should be.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I just saw the movie, and I agree with you. I thought it was excellently done, but certainly it demands your attention. The casting was good - Kidman surprisingly and Eliot perfectly so - and it was nice not to have characters explain things that no one would ever explain. And as for the literary intercision, well, at no time did they ever say the Magisterium wasn't the Church. ;-)

Zeno said...

Thanks for your comment, Ridger. I took special note of the garb of the Magisterium's leadership and observed that Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee were wearing the stylized M as a pendant on their chests instead of the pectoral cross one would expect of a Christian bishop, but it gave the same visual impact as the usual uniform of the high cleric.

I recall only two times when I said a silent "Oops" to myself while watching The Golden Compass: In the scene in the retiring room, the decanter of Tokay is nowhere to be seen when Lyra and Pantalaimon are sniffing about (even when Lyra leans over the table and touches the crystal glassware), but when the Magisterium's representative is escorted in, there it is! Then later, when Lyra confronts the captain of the Tatar guard, Iorek appears out of nowhere. Now just how do you hide a huge armored bear on an open plain? Sure, it's thrilling at the moment, but I guess we were expected to believe that no one noticed all that ursine tonnage loping across the open ground toward them. Right. Not persuasive.