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The Golden Compass: Where Is It Pointing?
By Peter Malone MSC
LONDON(SAR NEWS) --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 in 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), the very pleasing The Bridge to Terabithia, 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.

Stage-managed controversy
Actually, it is Philip Pullman who has led to the current controversies and many 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 Pullman and his ideas 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 (non-cute) 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.

Telling the truth and revealing the hidden
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 Courtney, Jim Carter and the voices of Ian McKellen (particularly strong and heroic) and Ian McShane (villainous) 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.

Fantasy film with girl in centre stage
The plot offers, 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).

The anti-Catholic aspects
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 freewill so that all people, especially the children they abduct and experiment on, will lose their daemon and be completely conformist and happy.

Science fiction has treated this plot in the several versions of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 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 and authoritarian religion.

The Golden Compass, normally, would be classified as PG or PG 13, suitable for most with a warning that there are some frightening scenes and battles for the younger audience.


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