Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NOW PLAYING: Golden Compass review

The Next Epic Trilogy

Kat and I went to see "The Golden Compass" last night at a sneak preview in DC. Not having read the books, I didn't know anything but what the commercials were showing--Nicole Kidman in form-fitting dresses, Daniel Craig bearded and scholarly, a little girl astride a polar bear fresh from a Coca Cola commericial... you've seen the ads, you get the idea.

We were impressed and delighted.

Without going deep into spoiler territory, the summary is this: a little orphan girl raised in a college finds herself in the middle of a covert battle between those who champion the right of all to think for themselves and the forces of the Magisterium, an authoritarian quasi-government with its own horrifying secrets and ambitions.

The girl, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), holds the last golden compass; this is an artifact capable of discerning truth for those able to read it. She encounters Mrs. Coulter (Kidman), a deliciously evil woman so despicable she even brutalizes her own "demon" (a physical manifestation of one's soul--part companion and part conscience). Lyra's own demon, Pan (voiced by Freddie Highmore), is not settled into one shape like Coulter's; instead, he is able to change from ferret to bird to rat to cat with quicksilver speed. He is both ally and vulnerability to Lyra, as his welfare is used against her more than once.

Lyra's uncle, Asriel (Craig), is an explorer and self-professed "heretic" in the eyes of the Magisterium. He sets out for the distant North, where he believes the secret of the mystical "dust" can be learned and access to myriad other worlds obtained.

Meanwhile, Lyra must explore the mystery of several missing children, as well as an unsettling prophecy and the need to make friends in strange places. She befriends Scoresby (Sam Elliott), a cowboyish 'aeronaut' with his own flying machine, and ice bear Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen), a figure who is both tragic and pathetic when first met. However, with Lyra's faith and support, Iorek shows he is a force not to be discounted.

As Lyra plumbs the depths of the mysteries around her and leads an unlikely assortment of allies into battle, she makes some powerful discoveries--and sets the stage for a great conflict, which the film promises with its closing shots.

Kidman and Craig lend not only star power but also terrific acting as Mrs. Coulter and Asrial, respectively. Craig plays against the Bond persona he crafted for Casino Royale, portraying a scholar strait-jacketed by a ruthless enemy organization; he is a man of thought and action, more cerebral than Bond if only slightly less dangerous in a fight.

Coulter is a platinum blonde fiend, whose tyranny and ego are both monstrous in scope as well as practice. There are not many movies where she's been quite this pitch-perfect. Richards, as Lyra, does a magnificent job particularly in her scenes with Kidman, when she effortlessly calls Coulter on her hypocrisies. Richards also does a superb job acting with Iorek (McKellen), whom one imagines was created on a computer, giving the girl little to act with. That she makes her interactions with the bear so warm and believable is remarkable for an actor of any age, doubly so for such a youngster. She'll also make you believe she's discerning the world's secrets while staring into a golden disk.

Sadly, though grace notes (mostly historical allusions) flesh out the supporting cast, there is very little screen time given to the diverse actors backing up the above quartet. This isn't to say they don't give their all-- there just isn't much given to them to do. We hope that their roles will be expanded in the second and third installments, as there are many heroes and villains ready for their turn in the spotlight.

Rated PG-13, the movie has moments of violence but nothing truly terrifying.

Opens Friday, December 7.

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