The Golden Compass (STATEMENT from SIGNIS)Starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Ian Mckellen. Written and directed by Chris Weitz.
In the ordinary course of events, film releases and film reviews, there would be little call for a statement on The Golden Compass. It is simply the most recent of a spate of fantasy films that have entertained wide audiences since 2001. The Lord of the Rings along with the first Harry Potter led the way that year, with Lord of the Rings sequels in 2002 and 2003. The Harry Potter films continue with the sixth to be released in 2008. Then came Narnia in 2005 (with Prince Caspian scheduled for 2008), followed by lesser fantasies, Eragon and The Dark is Rising. Now we have The Golden Compass. The principal films have noted, even celebrated authors: J.R.R. Tolkein, J.K.Rowling, C.S. Lewis and, now, Philip Pullman.
Actually, it is Philip Pullman who has led to some current controversies and some letters, website and email scaremongering about the film before its release.
But, first a comment on the film itself. This is a statement on the film and the film itself, not the novel Northern Lights on which the film is based, or other Pullman novels - which I have not read. Some observations on Philip Pullman will follow.
The Golden Compass is well-made, with a lot of intelligent dialogue, including the word 'metaphysics' a couple of times. Much of the film requires attention as well as some developed vocabulary. It looks very good, sets and design, effects for fantasy, and Nicole Kidman wearing a large array of costumes and gowns. The cast is strong with Dakota Blue Richards as the feisty heroine, Lyra, who along with her daemon (more about that word later), Pan, who is the external version, the physical manifestation of her 'soul' with whom she can speak and argue, is ready to take on all comers - and does. The talented young actor, Freddie Highmore, is the voice of Pan.
The Golden Compass itself is a powerful mechanism that tells the truth and reveals what others wish to hide.
Apart from Nicole Kidman, who seems to be relishing the opportunity to be glamorous, charming and ruthlessly villainous, there is Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, Sam Elliott exactly as he is in the many Westerns he has appeared in as Mr Scoresby and a long list of distinguished British stage and screen actors including Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee, Claire Higgins, Tom Courteney, Jim Carter and the voices of Ian McKellen (particularly strong and heroic) and Ian McShane as the rival bear kings. The film certainly has class. Interestingly (and perhaps surprisingly), writer-adapter and director is an American, Chris Weitz. After assisting his brother, Paul, with the directing of American Pie and the Chris Rock comedy, Down to Earth, they went to England to direct the film version of Nick Hornby's About a Boy. Obviously, things English have appealed to him.
The plot is, one might say, some variations on most of the fantasy films listed above. Afficionados will enjoy pointing out the comparisons. Yes, there is battle between good and evil - and in remote locations like the Rings Trilogy. Yes, there is a young central character, this time a girl, a kind of working class Hermione who lives in a college and has to do Harry Potter-like actions. The king bear, a literally towering figure, is reminiscent of Aslan in Narnia. There is a happy continuity in the imagination of all these films.
With a girl as central and with a number of battle sequences, the film should appeal to its boys and girls target audience - and the adults will probably enjoy it too (but may have to ask the children some clarifications of plot and characters).
There are some aspects of the film that may raise a religious eyebrow. The opening of the film speaks of parallel worlds, a feature of all of the best film fantasies. In our world, our souls are within us. In the parallel world, the soul is outside us, in the form of a symbolic animal called a 'daemon' (not a devil but a 'spirit' according to the origins of the word). The other word is the 'Magisterium', the name of the all-powerful ruling body which is authoritarian and intent on eradicating free will so that all people, especially the children they abduct and experiment on, will lose their daemon and be completely conformist and happy. The Magisterium heads are embodied by Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee who spurn tolerance and freedom and speak of heresy. Magisterium is, in fact, the word used for the authoritative teaching of the Catholic church, so that is clearly a critical element - though, as will be quoted later, Pullman says he is not anti-Catholic but anti-rigid religion.
The Golden Compass has some frightening scenes and battles for the younger audience.
However, the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights in the United States opened a campaign against the film three months before its release and published and widely distributed a booklet critical of the attitudes of the author and, by extension, his novels. It is called : The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked. The head of the League, William Donohue, has placed critical material on his websites and has been the guest on several American chat shows. A number of people in different parts of the world, scenting a controversy or a crusade, or simply out of displeasure at the alleged accusations, are involved in letter-writing, especially emails warning of the dangers of the film, and some personal denunciations. As with all controversies and campaigns, attack without the benefit of viewing a film undermines the credibility of a crusade whether it is justified or not.
As with the arguments about magic and witchcraft in the Harry Potter novels (though there is little discussion about the magic and witchcraft in Tolkein and Lewis), some parents were alarmed at the upset and upsetting messages they received. Two weeks before the release of The Golden Compass, this letter was emailed. Some paragraphs are included but edited for the anonymity of the writer:
I was sickened to read all the praise for the book which is worse than the movie. I now feel I must let as many people, especially parents, know that the book and movie are disgusting and evil. I feel sick by this horrendous author because I have been chosen by our Dear Lord to bring his wonderful teachings to the little ones and I'm honoured to do it. I'm a Catechist preparing little ones for their First Holy Communion.