I have to confess, I haven’t read any of Phillip Pullman’s books. I’ve been meaning to, but as the movie got closer that didn’t seem like such a good idea. The trailers looked good, and I just wanted to see Daniel Craig’s first big post-Casino Royale role. Reading the books shouldn’t be a prerequisite to seeing the movie, right? As it turns out, in the case of The Golden Compass (as with some of the Harry Potter movies), I suspect it would have helped.
Events in Chris Weitz’s very impressive-looking, big budget adaptation seem to happen because they’re supposed to, because they happen that way in a book and that’s what the core audience will be expecting, and not because one movie scene leads logically into another. Like the most recent Potter movie, scenes seem rushed and crammed in. It’s always a challenge to compress a lengthy book into a movie, and this one could have used some more judicious cutting. (Not shortening, mind you; the movie didn’t seem overly long. Just devoting more time to certain key scenes and eliminating ones that weren’t.) I’m sure that fans of the book will get more out of the movie than I did, if only to see some of their favorite moments realized. As a diehard Potter enthusiast, I certainly enjoyed seeing the whirlwind presentation of scenes and images from Order of the Phoenix, even if they didn’t coalesce as well as a whole as the prior two film adaptations. In the case of The Golden Compass, Pullman seems to have created a compelling and fantastic world, and the movie’s primary strength is in how that’s realized. There is room in this universe for Victorian orphanages, outrageous Art Deco flying machines, Cossack warriors, cowboys, armored polar bears, exploding laboratories, a sinister church-like organization called the Magesterium and even some spy gadgets: robotic wasps (shades of the Avengers movie?) called "spy flies." Surprisingly, all of these disparate elements blend well together as imagined by Weitz and production designer Dennis Gassner (who will lend his talents to the next Bond film as well). Costume designer Ruth Myers, too, deserves praise.
Also uniformly good is the acting. Craig does a good job as Lord Asriel (a role originated on stage by Timothy Dalton), although I was surprised at how small his part is. (The marketing campaign certainly presents him as one of the main stars.) His two former leading ladies, Nicole Kidman and Eva Green (neither of whom share any scenes with him here), are both excellent, especially Green (also in a relatively small role). Tom Courtnay, star of one of my favorite obscure Sixties spy films, Otley, also turns in a good performance, and the man with the golden gun himself–of course–completely commands his single scene. (I’m told Christopher Lee’s role of "First High Councilor" is larger in subsequent books, hence his casting here.) Single season Mission: Impossible star Sam Elliott (how weird is that?) is his reliably good self, and even newcomer child star Dakota Blue Richards makes a very convincing lead. But none of that acting is enough to overcome the "going through the motions" feel of the adaptation itself.
In the movie’s defense, it does get better as it goes along, and I cared more about the characters and their fates by the end. Or, more accurately, by the time the movie stops, since it doesn’t really have much of an ending. (Especially Craig’s storyline, which leaves off on a cliffhanger.) It’s clearly the opening salvo in a trilogy, and hopefully with the groundwork laid, subsequent installments will be more daring. Speaking after tonight’s screening, director Weitz revealed that all the principal stars, including Craig, were signed for the sequels (which would shoot back-to-back) should this one perform well enough to warrant them.
Note: This "extended preview" shows all sorts of Daniel Craig scenes that don't appear in the movie, including a kiss with Nicole Kidman. (The two characters never even meet in the final cut.)