The Golden Compass Footage Review

An old friend of mine turned successful writer in his own right, Drew Sheldrick has dropped by to drop in this report of footage screened late last week in Sydney for New Line’s upcoming fantasy epic “The Golden Compass.” Here’s his take:

Direct from wooing critics in Cannes, Sydney’s film media were this week presented with a 15-minute preview of footage from the upcoming The Golden Compass, based the first novel of Phillip Pullmans acclaimed and best-selling His Dark Materials trilogy.

Written as a literary rebuff to the religious poison that permeated through C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, its adaptation has been rife with controversy. From rumours of a reduction of the anti-religious themes, to a revolving door of writers and directors, the film has had its far share of criticism before footage was even released. It was always going to be a tough ask: how do you adapt novels featuring gay angels and a war against God without alienating your base audience in the United States?

As a big fan of the trilogy myself, I sat sweaty palmed in the screening with an unwavering fear that a classic was about to be slaughtered before my eyes.

The good news: It seems many of my fears were unrealised. While much obviously remains unfinished, we were shown a number of 30-second scenes that were an interesting insight into director, Chris Weitz’s, vision.

The setting of Oxford is�extremely colourful, lots of bright buildings and landscapes that then later contrast to the dark and cold of the North. The animal ‘daemon’ characters are extremely effects based, as you�might expect – it would have been near impossible to make them any more life-like considering they morph so much.

I was shocked they showed us Mrs. Coulter’s famous golden monkey daemon, which looked really scary. We saw the scene where Roger is being enticed by it. I actually liked the kid that played Roger far more than Lyra.�He is strikingly similar to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore.

The other daemons looked ok, Lyra’s Pan had a young boys voice and I mostly saw him as a ferret, though we saw another disturbing scene where the gold monkey attacks him as a cat. Like the book, the scenes with daemons attacking each other are�far�scarier than when humans are in danger, this and Roger’s scene�were quite unsettling.

The witches look ok, lots of black and green costuming, and the scene where Serafina (Eva Green) tells Lyra she doesn’t know if she’ll return as friend or foe is as effective as it is in the book.

�The aeronautical cowboy, Lee Scoresby, looks and sounds fantastic. Almost as if he’s been transported straight from a Clint Eastwood western (you may remember actor, Sam Elliot, from Tombstone). He’s extremely effective and will no doubt bring the film a humour that will attract American audiences.

Iorek, the polar bear, looks and sounds great – you can tell he’s the real drawcard of the film and they’ve spent the most time on him. He’s voiced by Nonso Anozie, who I saw play Othello in Sydney two years ago on the Cheek by Jowl word tour, a great find. We also caught a brief glimpse of him in the fight with Ragnar – whose armour makes him look more like a triceratops than a polar bear. I’m guessing they haven’t finished that scene yet because they were on a very dull looking snow hill just duking it out.

Acting wise – Nicole Kidman is good as the villainous Mrs. Coulter from what I saw. The scene where she threatens Lyra and demands the Alethiometer is great – she is one scary biatch! Her wardrobe is equally stunning as Kidman herself.

Daniel Craig looks a bit wooden as the mysterious Lord Asriel (the character is a bit two-dimensional to be fair), but there is a great clip where he asks Lyra how she escaped from Coulter at which she says she tricked her and Craig responds by giving a devilish smirk and replying “that’s a trick I’d like to learn.”

Lyra hasn’t convinced me as yet, they went through 10,000 girls to find actress Dakota Blue Richards and I’m just not sold that she has that tomboy violent streak in the novels. It all looked a little forced and she was just spitting all over the place.

The best character I saw by far�was, bizarrely, Fra Pavel. He’s played by Simon McBurney who you may remember as the creepy scientist in The Manchurian Candidate. He is fantastically creepy, slimy and extremely effective as the Magisterium’s flunky (the representation of the church in Lyra’s world). I�was impressed by him the most. He’s mainly done theatre previous to the film and it shows. He has an amazing presence on scene.

This brings me to the role of the church in the film. I had heavily suspected that the whole anti-religion plot would be�pushed to the background�and,�most of all, that�it wouldn’t be evident in the preview we saw. But it was very noticeable! Lines about heresy, about the church wanting to dominate all things and all worlds,�and about wanting to quell the curiosity of children ran throughout many scenes. A win for Pullman no doubt.�I suspect maybe those rumours were the work of crafty New Line PR personnel to prevent any controversy before the film’s release.

Other than that, we saw a brief glimpse of the battle outside the Bolvanger Station, the explosion from Asriel’s machine at the pole, a few shots of Scorseby’s balloon, lots of the grounds and rooftops of Oxford and plenty of Coulter’s blimp.

The effects are nothing ground-breaking, but all still effective. There�were very little action sequences shown, mostly dialogue. Some of it was hokey and looked more like trying to update non-readers on what everything was. While I hate it being dumbed down, I assume it is inevitable and necessary, especially to critics who don’t know the books. I just hope it feels a little more natural when the whole thing is complete.

Overall, it looks�better, but still in the same league as the Narnia adaptation, rather than Lord of the Rings. It does look like it has a lot of the intelligence of the novel, however, which means it has something on Narnia already.

They tagged the teaser trailer to the end of the footage which was far more exciting on the big screen than the web, but still lacked some of the�spine-tingling scenes�and clear vision�that Rings had. I just hope it’s a good enough spring board to propel them into The Subtle Knife, which is a far better novel.

I can’t help but see the similarities in both this and the other upcoming fantasy adaptation, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Both have attached directors who seemed an unlikely choice – Weitz known mostly for helming American Pie and Potter’s David Yates who has had very little film experience. Both also suffered from a lacklustre teaser trailer.

Fortunately, the second trailer for Phoenix was by far the best of the entire film series, restoring my faith in both Yates and the adaptations themself. My hope in these similarities is that Compass may return after post-production with a clearer vision and equally inspiring second trailer�to fully restore my faith that it will receive a fair and exciting translation to screen.