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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (article first published : 2007-12-23)

The story of a girl’s journey to self-awareness and understanding the price of free will, The Golden Compass is a sumptuous, star-laden saga that surfs in on a wave of controversy over anticipated blasphemy.

But it emerges as a high-gloss adventure about which there is very little that points to anything anti-God. Bottom line, nay-sayers, is that this is a fantasy, fiction from an imaginative mind, a slice of artistic expression. Embrace and enjoy it for that.

Written and directed by Chris (About a Boy) Weitz and the first of a planned trilogy based on Philip Pullman’s The Dark Materials fantasy epic, the film is of most note for special effects that are quite magical, some of the best we’ve seen in a while, in fact. Special mention must also be made of the sterling work done by Oscar-winning production designer Dennis Gassner, whose credits include Bugsy and The Road To Perdition, and costume designer Ruth Myers, whose has worked on LA Confidential and Emma.

But, it must be said, The Golden Compass is a bit of a long haul, character development is shoved aside in favour of intricate plot detail and the tale becomes more than a little convoluted, even confusing, as it builds to an ending that unrolls the red carpet for the first sequel. It’s the story of 12-year-old Lyra, played by charming newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, who was chosen from 10,000 young hopefuls. A girl seemingly without parents, Lyra lives among scholarly wards at a college in a parallel universe version of Oxford, England. This is a realm where talking animals are physical manifestations of the soul - animals with a penchant for constantly changing their appearance, in the case of those accompanying children.

It’s a place where an enigmatic, dictatorial religious authority, known as the Magisterium, rules. And its dark work has resulted in a rash of kidnappings of children by a mysterious force called the Gobblers. Whispers among the Gyptian boat people, gypsies who have lost many of their own to the kidnappers, is that the children are being taken to an experimental station in the icy north, to be subjected to unspeakable experiments.

The rebellious Lyra, a friend of street urchins, finds her adventure beginning when some of her pals start to vanish at around the time she catches wind of a mythical particle substance called Dust (no, not your common old household variety), which seems to have the power to unite the many parallel universes of her world.

Going in search of her friends, Lyra soon finds herself befriending Iorek, a towering polar bear with a penchant for armour and which speaks with Ian McKellen’s voice. With Lyra using a magical compass that reveals the truth about situations, she and the bear take a quest to the Far North in search of the Dust, en route facing multiple dangers.

Nicole Kidman pops up as a glamorous, sexy snob of a scientist-villain with a luxury zeppelin and a golden monkey soul sidekick; new 007 Daniel Craig has meagre screen time as Lyra’s gruff, explorer uncle, who has a great cat as a soul buddy; and a long-haired Sam Elliot makes an appearance as a comical, cowboy-like dude in a hot air balloon.

Others threaded into the story include Tom Courtenay as wise gypsy Farder Coram and an angelic-looking Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala, queen of the witches of Lake Enara. Also here – lending their voices to assorted creatures – are Kristen Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates, Ian McShane and Freddie Highmore. –Rating 6/10. Billy Suter




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