The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Based on the first of Philip Pullman's controversial His Dark Materials books, The Golden Compass is one of this year's most hotly anticipated films. The big question is, does it live up to its source? Rumours have abounded that it has been much abridged to remove what was considered anti-Christian content. In fact, its message about free thinking and the importance of questioning the establishment has survived pretty much intact, but that shouldn't put open-minded Christians off watching it either. Though it places it has a preachy tone, that's no more the case than in many other popular fantasy works (The Chronicles Of Narnia spring to mind), and what's more, it's a great deal of fun.

Easily the most imaginative, energetic and engaging children's film to hit cinemas this Christmas, The Golden Compass follows the journey of Lyra, a bold young girl whose curiosity and desire to rescue imperiled friends carry her on a quest to the frozen north.

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In this world not quite like our own, she is accompanied by her external spirit, or 'dæmon', in animal form. She encounters witches and talking polar bears and, rather more surprisingly, an Old West cowboy; she is threatened by the autocratic Magisterium and a deadly sleek Nicole Kidman; and, despite being at the centre of a prophecy, she has only her own quick wits and courage to carry her through. In this regard, she's a great heroine for kids. With no supernatural advantages, she deals with danger by kicking in doors or clubbing her attackers, never waiting for a boy or an adult to save her. She's ably played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards and her performance would be sufficient to make this film worth watching by itself.

There are times when The Golden Compass does need a little help. It's packed in so many characters from the book that it has difficulty introducing them all to uninitiated audience members, with the result that strangers seem to keep popping out of nowhere and turning out to be very important. At times the story feels quite disjointed, pausing whilst the titular compass is used to point the way to a new bit of plot.

It's a crowded and somewhat rambling tale, but this is more than compensated for by its sheer energy and the confidence with which it has been brought to the screen. Never for a moment does one have to struggle to suspend disbelief in this strange but seamlessly realised environment. The special effects are fantastic in the truest sense and there's a great deal of action. One note of caution - parents of younger children should be prepared for some really ferocious violence in the fight scenes, though there's never any blood. The film never patronises its audience - it expects them to grit their teeth and hang on for the whole ride, just as its heroine does.

Over the years to come, this film will no doubt be analysed to death. It is a flawed work, and it's not a perfect translation of the book, but as a film in its own right it's well worth seeing. It's a genuine, no-holds-barred cinematic adventure.

Reviewed on: 05 Dec 2007
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A bold young girl with a mysterious destiny sets off to rescue endangered children from the frozen north.
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Director: Chris Weitz

Writer: Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Philip Pullman.

Starring: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Ben Walker, Christopher Lee, and the voices of Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen and Ian McShane

Year: 2007

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, UK

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