Originally published at PassionforCinema.
I read Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark materials’ trilogy when I was in eighth. I liked it at the time, and it stuck in my head, proving that it was more than merely good (especially when you compare it to the fact that I was surprised when Aslan died in the first Narnia movie, even though I must have read it in the book). When the movie came out, I somehow got the idea that it wasn’t worth watching, and didn’t. Today, I just did, and… wow! And I say that after having watched it on TV, complete with ads and all.
The movie follows Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon (daemons are these animalic things that follow their humans around, and are connected in some deep way to them), as they discover the world they live in and become an integral part of some very important events indeed. But I won’t go into the story, as it would be almost superfluous; the story is something to be discovered. All you really need to know is that it’s a fantasy with a thinly-veiled Catholic Church called the Magisterium.
The real joy of the film is in its array of characters. Aided by Pullman’s extraordinary conception, even the smallest roles are clearly differentiated from each other, given a completely unique colour, sometimes literally. First, there’s Lyra, played by Dakota Blue Richards, who has (way) more than her fair share of cuteness. With the added gift of intelligence. Seriously, Lyra is probably the smartest and most resourceful character in the whole movie, though this is significantly countered by her innocence and ignorance, and this is a movie where you can see the politics coiling up on the inside walls of the adults. Richards is able to convey perfectly the inner conflicts – Lyra being a child, these aren’t particularly complex – while making me root for her every step of the way, striking a perfect balance between cuteness, simple-minded nobility, and fear.
Then there is the agent of the Magisterium Mrs. Marisa Coulter (I don’t recall her being actually married to anyone), played by Nicole Kidman. Nicole Kidman, as we all know, has an inbuilt class. Every role I’ve ever seen her in, from being naked in Eyes Wide Shut to herding bulls in Australia, she unmistakably has the class most Victorian women would die for. When the camera first showed her back in her intro scene, my blood began to rush; I could sense in that shot itself that there was something here which I’d never before seen, something that was going to be an experience in and of itself. And, boy was I right! This one scene showcases class that Kidman has never shown before, from the way she flutters her eyelashes – she really performs that, without losing a trace of dignity – at the Headmaster of the college to the way she wins Lyra’s trust, she captivated in a way I’ve never seen her before. Of course, the veneer falls, as she confronts more and more agitating situations. But, that scene! It was almost… orgasmic, in its flow and not even God knows what else.
There’s a talking bear called Iorek Byrnison. He’s a Polar Bear, and he’s voiced by Ian McKellen, reprising his role as Gandalf, the dude who saves the (read every) battle. I shouldn’t waste any more time on this one; you already know what I’m getting at.
The other roles are really small, but they live in that much. Eva Green inspires tenderness after the fashion of Michelle Yeoh as the witch Serafina Pekkala (isn’t that name enough?), even when she’s fighting. Daniel Craig merely holds the role of Lord Asriel, a sort of Galileo who happens to be Lyra’s uncle, and doesn’t go beyond, but I still think it was a good casting decision. Sam Elliott channels Daniel Plainview (the Daniel Day-Lewis character from There Will be Blood) as Lee Scoresby, whom we’ll only see properly later.
The only movie that came close to this in making me laugh out of… there’s a feeling you get that makes you laugh out loud loud in lame imitation of baring your fangs that is similar to anticipation when there’s great violence, or its expectation; let’s call it ‘violency’. The only movie that came close to this in making me laugh out loud out of violency is Sin City. With the obvious difference that Sin City was actually a movie you’d classify as violent. This violency comes purely out of characters you know and love being about to win against all odds.
However, as I write this, it occurs to me that all my excitement might not have been at the fighting. As I’ve already said, I read the books when I was in eighth, and more or less remembered the story. Lately, I’ve been realising that this is a pretty deep story, and as I was watching this movie, I was over and over again seeing symbolism, with knowledge of what’s to come. I now think that maybe, just maybe, that violency might well be a result of discovering idea after idea that has been deeply buried inside you, for isn’t clash of ideas violence too?
Another result of this uncovering was that I thought, unlike most, that the Church critique was more pointed than in the books. I could clearly see what every symbol stood for. Chris Weitz, the writer and director, has been criticised for watering down Pullman’s themes. Now, I think I saw what I did because I knew what I was looking for. Now, I also think that Pullman’s first book in isolation would not be very themed. In other words, I think that the movie couldn’t possibly be too well-themed, because it needs its sequels. Without them, it is merely a brilliant action movie, even if my favourite of the genre.
PS (the perfect illustration of the unfairness of life): Chris Weitz’s latest movie was The Twilight Saga: New Moon.