Making a most moral `Compass'

Filmmaker Chris Weitz wanted to tell the fantasy story through the eyes of a girl finding her way

Critical Eye

December 02, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

It wasn't surprising that after creating fierce, armored versions of the Coca-Cola bears and a golden monkey and an army of witches flying over the Great White North, the first question faced by Chris Weitz, the writer-director of The Golden Compass, would be about "escapism" -- the use of fantasy as mere diversion and retreat from reality.

"People want you to say that when the world is in a terrible state of affairs, audiences look for escape," Weitz says, over the phone from London, after facing round-tables of journalists. "That's all well and good, but fantasy films are replete with serious and dark issues," including many of the most beloved films of all time.

In the winter of 2001, no movie provided more solace than The Fellowship of the Ring. It was comforting and challenging to hear Frodo bemoan being thrust into apocalyptic times, and Gandalf counsel him, "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." That credo fit the new millennium as well as medieval legend.

Still, in an attention-deficit-disorder culture, moviemakers must fight old wars with the release of each new film. Last summer, some fantasy-lovers resisted the idea that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had anything to do with Anglo-American politics. But it ruthlessly depicted a foggy and untrustworthy ruling establishment, and the villainess was accurately described as "a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Freddy Krueger."

A perpetual inquisition dominates much of The Golden Compass, based on the first volume of a beloved trilogy by Philip Pullman known as His Dark Materials -- from Milton's phrase in Paradise Lost for the divine building supplies left over from creation. And Weitz hopes that seeing the movie, like reading the book, will deliver the experience of a child struggling to synthesize contradictory, dangerous experiences.

The Golden Compass posits life in a universe that's made up of multiple universes similar to yet vastly different from our own. In a series of cliffhangers involving child-stealers and glittering spirit-filled particles known as Dust, the young heroine, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), runs afoul of the Magisterium, the sprawling institution that oppresses her Earth.

The exotic supporting characters include Lyra's mysterious adventurer uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and her slippery patroness, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Their plots and counterplots unfold against eyepopping backdrops on the high seas and the frozen wastes. The Golden Compass itself is a rococo contraption that will tell the truth to anyone who knows how to read it.

Advance controversy has focused on the story's anti-Catholic bent. In our world, the Magisterium refers to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, and in the movie's world it's like the Catholic Church of the Spanish Inquisition. Weitz expunged the word church from the story: "I thought it would be unnecessarily provocative and hurtful to certain individuals."

But he denies that this deletion in any way dilutes the impact of the story. "The Magisterium stands for arbitrary authority and dogma of any kind," and the way Weitz views Pullman's trilogy, the author's main beef is with "the abuse of religion and the misuse of the idea of God for political ends."

To Weitz, Pullman's writing draws on diverse spiritual influences ranging from early Christianity to New Age mysticism, with their emphases on salvation from within. It's as reverent to qualities of soul as it is dismissive of organized religion and bureaucracy.

Weitz's key to cracking the Golden Compass script was to tell the story through the child-heroine's eyes. Francois Truffaut classics such as The 400 Blows and Small Change inspired him with their view of childhood as a creative time when personalities undergo fleet transformations.

Pullman's most engaging inventions are literal soul mates or daemons: animal spirits given voice and flesh reflecting their human hosts' essential characters. A child's daemon changes like a child's personality. One marvelous aspect of the movie is watching Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, assume the colorations of the communities around them -- including warrior-gypsies known as Gyptians and Amazons known as Witches -- as if to see how they fit.

"What you see," Weitz says, "is a girl we think is an orphan putting a family together, often from sorts of people others would consider unsuitable or disreputable."

The ice bear Iorek Byrnison (the voice of Ian McKellen) becomes the biggest of big brothers and the emotional core of the film. "You know the old saying, and Iorek helps prove it: Your friends are the family you choose," Weitz says.

But, unlike Harry Potter or even Frodo, Lyra takes many of her growth leaps on her own. Weitz wanted her notion of justice to fuel the film's dramatic engine.

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