The Golden Compass is likely to be controversial, and not just due to the well-publicized boycott by the Catholic League. This adaptation of Philip Pullman's 1995 novel, the first in his trilogy His Dark Materials, is well-acted and features gorgeous set design yet often holds back on the story's darker elements, including the heartbreaking cliffhanger. For all its considerable achievements, writer/director Chris Weitz and his collaborators play it safe, not just with the religious aspects but with the story as a whole. The neutering of Pullman's most pointed atheistic and anticlerical themes raises the possibility that the book's most fervent fans may be the ones who get angry.
Summarizing the plot of The Golden Compass takes nearly as long as watching the movie, but here's the slimmed-down version: In a parallel universe where human souls take the form of spiritual familiars called "Daemons," the orphan Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) and her daemon Pantalaimon (the ubiquitous Freddie Highmore) become involved in a child-abducting conspiracy led by the Magisterium, the church that controls this alternate world.
This leads to her uncovering an elaborate conspiracy involving the aristocratic Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman at her iciest) and Lyra's explorer-uncle Lord Asriel (a barely there Daniel Craig). Lyra and Pantalaimon soon set out to rescue the abducted children with help from an "alethiometer," a compass-like device that answers questions through pointing to various symbols, along with help from a zeppelin-flying cowboy (Sam Elliott), an eternally youthful witch (Eva Green) and a talking, armored polar bear voiced by Ian McKellen. It all makes sense when you see it.
In the novel, Pullman combines this intricate plot with intense action scenes and long, theatrical passages of exposition—not the easiest material to adapt to film. More to the point, Pullman explores issues like religion and free will in ways that alarm Sunday school teachers—a skeptical, secularist tendency that becomes more explicit in the later books. Pullman has called his story the "anti-Narnia," an answer to the popular Christian-themed fantasy series.
Consequently, religious groups have decried the books as a way of indoctrinating children into atheism and, furthermore, have suggested that the filmmakers, by making these themes more subtle, will make them more sinister. The critics should be mollified: The film version is careful never to refer to the Magisterium as anything more than "an authority," though the religious connection is clear from their priest-like garb and church-like buildings. Still, in Weitz's careful presentation, the not-clerics seem less like members of an evil church than simply an evil adult conspiracy.
Aside from downplaying the godlessness of the source material, The Golden Compass also occasionally falters in the choices made by the adaptation, which condenses the 500-page book into an hour and a half of screen time. Weitz shows a sure hand with the actors, effectively establishing characters in just a few minutes of screen time, and Richards hits the right combination of rebelliousness and curiosity needed for the part of Lyra. Character moments are also handled well, from the interactions of the children to the raw power of the polar bear Iorek Byrnison, whose most violent moments from the novel are largely retained—including a jaw-dropping fight with another bear.
However, the result often feels like a summary of the book's story, as opposed to a true translation into film. Characters enter the story awkwardly, and the plot sometimes bounces from one action sequence into another without allowing the scene's meaning to sink in. Most insidiously, the last 20 pages or so of the novel are excised to let the story end on a more upbeat note. By the end, The Golden Compass feels like more of a traditional Wizard of Oz quest story than an epic tale about a child's loss of innocence and the nature of God.
The film is still well worth seeing—the acting, images and power of the original story remain effective, even in this truncated form. However, like most book-to-film adaptations, the original is still the best. Regardless of how you feel about the religious aspects of the plot, The Golden Compass is, on its own, an entertaining film. Still, if the filmmakers had more faith in the book, it could have been a great one. —Zack Smith
The Golden Compass opens Friday throughout the Triangle.
Perhaps Redux might be a more appropriate—and equally banal—title for the 2007 incarnation of Sleuth. This is director Kenneth Branagh's revision of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1972 prestige film of the same name, itself adapted from Anthony Shaffer's Tony Award-winning play. Michael Caine, who costarred alongside Laurence Olivier in the original, assumes Olivier's part of millionaire mystery novelist Andrew Wyke in what might be called Sleuth 2.0, while Jude Law takes on Caine's earlier role of unemployed actor Milo Tindle.
There is a certain English dog-and-pony-show quality to the proceedings here. For one thing, this is the second time Law has reprised a Michael Caine role after 2004's Alfie. For another, while we always operated on the assumption that Branagh's directorial career was focused primarily on film adaptations of Shakespeare plays, the larger truth seems to also include his aim to remake as many Olivier-starring vehicles as possible (Henry V, Hamlet and As You Like It previously). The unfortunate reality is that, outside the realm of the Bard, Branagh has never fully realized the filmmaking potential he flashed 16 years ago in Dead Again, the underrated, Scott Frank-penned neo-noir.
Even sadder is the fact that these theatrical intersections are the most interesting reasons to watch Sleuth. The crux of Shaffer's original remains intact: The older Andrew invites upstart Milo, who is embroiled in an affair with Andrew's estranged wife, to his country estate. There, Andrew proposes a scheme wherein Milo would carry out a phony heist of Andrew's priceless jewels; Milo could keep the gems, and Andrew would pocket the insurance proceeds. Andrew harbors more diabolical intentions and suffice it to say that each man engages in a course of humiliations and reprisals against his foil. Any further elucidation would only spoil the plot for the hapless few who subject themselves to this claptrap.
Nobel laureate playwright Harold Pinter, tabbed with updating the screenplay for modern audiences, amps up the venom of the verbal jousting, emphasizes Milo's Italian heritage and fleshes out an incongruous homoerotic subtext. Despite Pinter's exertions, we are stuck with two unlikable, logorrheic characters in Andrew's hyper-mod manor—a milieu that Branagh chills further with dark blue hues, reflective surfaces and other gewgaws.
The allure of two fine actors engaged in tug-of-war may entice some audiences. However, Caine may as well be taping another installment in his Acting in Film video series; in his presence, Law comes off as a shrill, wildly paddling poodle. Sleuth fails to solve the biggest mystery of all: why this movie was green-lit in the first place. —Neil Morris
Sleuth opens Friday in select theaters.