Monday, May 05, 2008


Does anyone know someone who admitted to seeing The Golden Compass when it opened in cinemas at the tail end of last year? I talked to a couple of bods who caught it before I did. While the consensus was it wasn’t really that bad, both seemed eager to drop the subject.

When I finally got around to watching it for myself I understood why they wanted to move the conversation on. Watching The Golden Compass was almost like catching a good friend or family member doing something exceptionally embarrassing. Instead of speaking up one just backed out the room, resolving never to mention it again.

It’s not it’s a totally awful film, but it should have been so much better. I still haven’t yet replaced the Philip Pullman novels so there’s no way to compare it to the source material, which may be a good thing. Even without them, The Golden Compass looked like a film made by a director who didn’t have the experience or strength of vision for a studio that ultimately bottled it.

When the final trailer was released I had my suspicions that some dumbing down was being employed, but it was unbelievable how the film’s introduction sold out the story in those first opening minutes. After that it seemed almost pointless to carry on.

Tell everyone about the parallel universes connected by dust, why don’t you. Then make the audience aware that this film will include witches, Gyptians and polar bears, like someone carefully reading the ingredients. Right after that, tell them all about the alethiometer/golden compass, and round it off with just a hint that the Magisterium might be the baddies.

Compare that to the prologue at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the films New Line tried every which way to associate The Golden Compass with. The map of Middle-Earth is shown but it certainly doesn’t take the audience on a detailed guided tour. Elves, dwarves and men are introduced, but for a specific reason. First, because the Great Rings were bestowed upon them, but then, after the forging of the One Ring, because the alliance of men and elves fought Sauron’s forces on the slopes of Mount Doom to restore peace to Middle-Earth.

Instead the prologue concentrates solely on the One Ring and the journey it has previously taken, passing from Sauron to Isildur to Gollum to Bilbo Baggins. So far, that’s all the audience needs to know. Once that’s done the film starts with an introduction to the hobbits of The Shire, because that’s where the narrative begins. From then on everything and everyone else is introduced when it serves the story. Which is pretty much how normal films go about their business.

The only element the makers of The Golden Compass really needed to make clear from the outset were the dæmons, described straight away as the humans’ “animal spirits”. Otherwise the reaction from anyone unfamiliar with the books would be, eh?! Apart from that, why wasn’t everything else left until it was their turn to make an appearance? The intended audience may be young but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Actually, Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was intended for an audience slightly older than JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

Look at it from another perspective. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was the first book I remember reading outside of school, when I was four years old or thereabouts. On television in later years I saw Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk and Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. This meant that when Pirates of the Caribbean; The Curse of the Black Pearl came around in 2003, I pretty much knew the drill.

Still, there had to be a much younger audience the movie was appealing to that were, for the most part, unaware of what was, by then, a dead genre. Yet the filmmakers didn’t see the need to immediately open the feature with a long explanation involving the who, what, and where, and then point out that some of the characters might be undead, just to spoil any surprises.

Once The Golden Compass shunts the information to the beginning, it leaves the adventure that follows strangely hollow. Fundamentally, Pullman’s novel is about Lyra Belacqua rescuing her best friend after he’d been painfully snatched by the Gobblers, just as The Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo carrying the One Ring to Mordor. Add the subplots, other characters and their machinations, and it should end up with something quite enticing. Except beyond the essentials, writer/director Chris Weitz forgot to put any meat on the bones.

There’s certainly an art to turning prose into filmic moments that sadly Weitz has failed to master here. Sure, there is menace but no real mystery. Characters Lyra meets along the way, either assisting or hindering her in the journey north, come across as little more than sketched in, barely extended cameos. What we’re left with is a lot of rather lifeless standing around and talking, which isn’t as epic and adventurous as it should be.

From what I recall from the book, Lord Asriel suffers the worst indignity. With the introduction explaining the dust before he can open his mouth, and the last chapter or two of the book not making it into the final cut, his presence is pretty much redundant amongst all the elaborate wrapping.

Given that the film was expected to have a running time of over two hours – which is pretty much par for the course nowadays – but comes in at well under two hours, suggests an eleventh hour rethink that didn’t work out too well.

The same affliction is present in Gone Baby Gone. Delayed from it’s original release date late last year, it’s finally coming out here in June. Although I had my reservations, based on the trailer, curiosity won out. Unable to wait, I picked up the Region 1 DVD in the interim.

Since it hasn’t been released here yet, I’m not going to be a complete meanie and give away what happens. Suffice to say that the reason it was pulled by the distributors was because the story concerns the abduction of a young child, taken from her bed while her mother was out of the house. So, it’s easy to see why there’s been a delay.

The directorial debut of Ben Affleck, and it’s pretty darn good. But it’s not great, which I think it actually could have been. I’ve mentioned before I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane’s novels, especially his quintet of Kenzie and Gennaro books of which Gone Baby Gone is the fourth.

I highly recommend them, but be advised, they have to be read in order, beginning with A Drink Before The War and finishing up with Prayers For Rain, simply because information is carried over from one novel to the next as the pair of private investigators deal with the physical and psychological repercussions from earlier cases. Perhaps, having picked one of the later books to adapt, and not wanting to spoil anything for newcomers, Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard have very thoughtfully eradicated any mention of their past endeavours or even their past.

After all, the audience sitting down to watch the film doesn’t need to know that Patrick Kenzie’s father was a firefighter, or that Angie Gennaro was in an abusive marriage; unless, of course, the adaptation was Darkness, Take My Hand. It’s a shame Devin Amronklin and Oscar Lee, the Boston police detectives the two PIs regularly hang out with haven’t properly made it into the film, although The Wire’s Michael K. Williams briefly appears as a cop called Devin that Kenzie mines for information without any real familiarity between the two.

The mistake Affleck and Stockard have made, is in paring down Angie Gennaro’s role in the narrative. The commentary over the few deleted scenes suggests their decision rested on keeping the plot on the go. Like Mystic River, Lehane’s breakthrough novel, which was turned into a film by screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Clint Eastwood, character is as important as plot. The two are intertwined.

In the books, although Kenzie and Gennaro take some hard knocks it’s their humanity that stops them from being dragged down into the maelstrom of violence, brutality and depravity that the cases. Unless he was contracted to deliver a film of no longer than two hours, Affleck should have taken that little extra to fully integrate Angie Gennaro into the story and invest in the pair’s relationship.

If the audience knows that Kenzie and Gennaro have known each other since they were kids, and after working together for so many years have finally got it together, it would make the moral dilemma that forms the denouement and shapes the aftermath even far more devastating that it already is. Without her as an equal, Affleck’s taken a Kenzie and Gennaro novel and made a Patrick Kenzie film. And that’s a real shame.


At 5:53 pm, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

Watching the news coverage of Boris over the weekend, and stumbling upon an old epsisode of Jamie Oliver frying sausages in his bedsit, I was struck - not for the first time - that success these days is less a function of merit than it is of being in just the right place at exactly the right time.

The fact that Gone Baby Gone still hasn't been given a release date is a neat reminder, though, that fate's as likely to stick a shiv in a guy's back as it is to unfurl the red carpet for him.

The reviews last year were excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie. Eventually.

On a slight tangent, did you happen to catch Dr Tanya Byron's hilariously straight-faced programme last night about contemporary sexual behaviour?

She debated the appropriateness of grown men having oral sex with seven-year-old girls. She discussed the attractions of 'dogging' with a male stripper who has sex in carparks. And she visited a public urinal with a guy who started giving giving strangers blowjobs in his early teens.

The programme was called Am I Normal?

Well, I'm not the one with a PhD, but...

At 10:57 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Well, I'm not going to disagree with your review, but having had the opportunity to read the ORIGINAL screenplay before New Line lost confidence and embarked on the slashing, adding, re-writing/re-filming route, I will say it's a pity that wasn't the film we eventually saw on screen.

At 2:43 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Well, Gone Baby Gone comes out in a couple months. It is a nice little film. Behind the camera, Affleck's done a good job, even if the movie isn't what it should have been.


Oh, you lucky thing, getting a chance to read the original script. Of course it must have you grinding your teeth, thinking of what might have been.

With that kind of source material it really shouldn't have failed, right? Such a crying shame!

If anything, what happened to The Golden Compass is just another sad example of what happens when the fagile détente between the studios and filmmakers starts to crumble.


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