12-year-old Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is an inquisitive, sharp-minded tomboy who plays rough and is fiercely loyal to her friends. An orphan who resides at a college populated mainly by adults, Lyra’s best friends with a servant boy and basically a pain in the rear to her teachers. In general, she’s an independent thinker and fairly mature for her age. That’s what we quickly find out about Lyra in the film’s first 15 minutes. After that, things get a little confusing – unless you’ve read the book.
Lyra lives in a world where every human has an animal, referred to as a daemon (pronounced demon), attached to them who is basically a part of their soul. If the daemon is hurt, the human also suffers and vice versa. Lyra’s world, which is also home to witches and talking ice bears, is ruled over by a group known as the Magisterium. The Magisterium is against free will and has been conducting experiments on children. Employing a group known as the Gobblers, children are being kidnapped off the streets by the Magisterium and spirited away to a remote facility where they’re subjected to a hideous form of torture.
No sooner is he off than Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) appears, offering Lyra the chance to leave the college and go exploring. The fact Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey daemon is an evil little creature should be Lyra’s first clue that taking off with this gorgeous, mysterious woman who favors the color gold isn’t the smartest thing to do, but she agrees anyway. Right before she’s to leave the college, she’s handed a one-of-a-kind golden compass, known as an Alethiometer, which doesn’t point to North, South, East or West. Instead it points out the truth to anyone able to interpret its signs (which, of course, only Lyra can do).
Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards does justice to Pullman’s Lyra, even though the film itself tones down her character from the impetuous fireball who’s constantly in danger in the novels to someone who seems to easily get out of most jams with either the help of an adult or an ice bear. At least Richards shows some personality onscreen, which unfortunately can’t be said for her adult co-star Nicole Kidman. Granted, it must be very difficult to play a character whose allegiances aren’t fully known and who is basically in charge of a group that tortures children. But Kidman doesn’t breathe life into Mrs Coulter. The character lays there crying out for some CPR which Kidman never provides. Fortunately, Sam Elliott brings some real warmth and spirit to the part of one of Lyra’s protectors, and that sort of counteracts the lifelessness of Kidman as Coulter.
Bond, James Bond fans looking for more heroics from Daniel Craig are going to be disappointed. Craig’s got maybe all of ten minutes of screen time in The Golden Compass. But if the second and third movies are greenlit (which depends on how well The Golden Compass does at the box office), then Craig’s part in the tale increases dramatically.
Continued on Page 2: The Bottom Line