Let’s get one thing out of the way: I can’t imagine a much better adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel Northern Lights. The Golden Compass has plenty of flaws, but they’re the flaws of Pullman’s clever, imaginative but often nonsensical book, and while Weitz could be criticized for being too faithful to source material which was bound to be nigh-impossible to translate, that criticism seems unfair. Weitz was always going to be between a rock and a hard place, as the reaction to his early comments about downplaying Pullman’s anti-religion tirades proved: fans jumped on him for undermining the text, and religious bodies boycotted his film anyway.
Yet the religious aspect is one of many things Weitz handles with delicacy and aplomb. If you look for it, it’s there – the movies’ villainous and oppressive organisation The Magisterium can be seen as the Catholic church, but equally as any totalitarian authority if you prefer; the daemon creatures that accompany characters are referred to as their souls in the introduction, but the point isn’t laboured; the mysterious Dust that drives the plot may relate to original sin, or as easily be a handy mcguffin. The religious subtext is still there and it’s not far below the surface, but neither is it heavy-handed or intrusive.
It would be wrong to suggest that Weitz’s adaptation never stumbles; the truth is that it spends more time stumbling than otherwise. But again, the fault lies not such much with Weitz but with Pullman’s rambling and exposition-laden plot, and the fact that he rarely explains his concepts, leaving much for the film-makers to try and rationalise. The Golden Compass exceeds two hours and still feels rushed, but only because it’s an hour and more before it can settle into anything like a linear story. For what seems an age it bounces from scene to scene, desperately trying to set up a world that doesn’t really make much sense, and to cram in pages of explanation in a remotely subtle fashion.
More often than not it fails on both counts, but again, it’s a doomed attempt, and at least Weitz makes the failure a stylish one. The Golden Compass, with its airships, witches, armoured bears and ever-present animal daemons, looks fabulous; some reviews have criticised the CG animation, but the only possible criticism seems to be that there’s a lot of it, because with very few exceptions it looks splendid. The cast is marvellous and well-chosen, with Nicole Kidman surprisingly creepy and the ever-reliable Sam Elliott offering some much needed warmth. More impressively, Dakota Blue Richards – who seemed desperately wooden in the trailer – actually manages to carry off the difficult character of Lyra.
Make no mistake, this is a flawed film. But it has way more going for it than many critics have allowed. It’s often confused and confusing, but thanks to the marvelous, meticulous production design and Weitz’s invention, it’s always watchable and rarely dull. It also has some tremendous scenes, most of them in the latter half and involving Ian McKellan-voiced armoured bear Iorek Byrnison. At its best The Golden Compass is a surprisingly mature (and kiddie-unfriendly) slice of intelligent fantasy; go into it with an open mind and you may find more to like than the critical savaging would suggest.