Casting Nicole Kidman as The Golden Compass' glacial, intractably smooth megalomaniac Mrs. Coulter was the deal breaker for director Chris Weitz, who adapted this first installment of British novelist Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy — Kidman was his first and only choice. Despite the book's description of the nefarious doyenne's panther-black mane, her creepy, honey-do voice and chilly femininity, Coulter is Kidman up one side and down the slinky other.
A pity, then, that this casting decision is just one miss in The Golden Compass' comprehensive line of near hits: Almost effective as the fanatical, child-stealing villain, Kidman ultimately is a stray thread among many in a too-complicated quilt. In other words, she's scarier in Margot at the Wedding.
Complaints about the Byzantine plotting of Pullman's allegory may be inevitable. So are comparisons of Mrs. Coulter to kid lit's snowiest queen, Narnia's White Witch, who was brought to blood-stopping life by Tilda Swinton in the 2005 adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It's a comparison that author Pullman — no fan of the "tweedy medievalist" C.S. Lewis — openly cultivated when he wrote the trilogy. Calling the Narnia cycle "one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read," Pullman, an avowed atheist, set out to critique Narnia's heavy-handed dogma with his own story of a girl's quest to free children from their zombie-like servitude to quasi-Christian, sin-obsessed authority.
It really must have burned Pullman's biscuits to see the first Narnia movie gross nearly a billion dollars. But it may be some comfort to watch his young heroine, Lyra (played by the charming Dakota Blue Richards) finally climb into her own wardrobe closet on-screen. She's delivered from the wardrobe not into a land of eternal youth, benevolent lion kings, sacrifice, and resurrection, as was her counterpart in Narnia, but rather a nightmare of power-mad zealotry.
Weitz opens the film with some necessary voice-over, introducing us to the "other world" we are about to enter. Here humans walk alongside their own souls, which appear as pet-like "daemons." The daemons of children (dazzlingly realized, as are all of the film's effects) can change form, morphing from a polecat to an ermine to a mouse in a moment. But when children cross the brink into adulthood, their daemons become defined. We know, for instance, that Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is a beautiful — though ruthless — predator because he struts on screen with a snow leopard at his side. Uncle to Lyra, Asriel travels to Jordan College, where his orphan niece is boarded. There, Asriel appeals to the shady, suspiciously clerical "Magisterium" to fund his arctic research into the source of Dust, a euphemism for "all the death, the sin, the misery, the destructiveness in the world."
Hiding in the aforementioned closet, Lyra — incorrigibly curious and unflappably bright — witnesses an attempt to poison Asriel. Like her uncle, she becomes determined to understand the source of Dust when the glamorous Mrs. Coulter sweeps onto campus and offers her an assistantship in her swish London digs. Initially seduced by Mrs. Coulter's flirting and finery, Lyra soon discovers Coulter is behind a recent rash of (possibly Dust-related) child kidnappings, including that of her friend Roger. Lyra escapes, only to be kidnapped herself and rescued by vagabonds called "Gyptians," whom she enlists in her determined journey north to rescue Roger.
Joining Lyra's crew is a fearsome, exiled polar bear King (voiced by Ian McKellen), who later provides the film with its most spectacular sequence: some killer bear-on-bear action. Oh yeah, and Lyra masters reading the alethiometer — a golden compass that reveals the truth — given to her for no apparent reason before she left Jordan College.
One vaguely implicit reason that she has the compass is that Lyra could potentially be the "prophesized child" the local witches have been waiting for. But along with that sidelong allusion to a decidedly virtuous, righteous child who will save us all, the film contains a head-spinning hodgepodge of ideas and references, all wedged into a serviceable fantasy lark.
Weitz avoids the novel's one relatively direct indictment (involving Adam, Eve, and a pile of bollocks called "Original Sin") altogether by having the film end three crucial chapters before the book does. Those chapters, unfortunately, are intrinsic to Compass' narrative aim (i.e., trying to get kids to swallow some sense with their fantasy). By emphasizing Pullman's imaginative conceits while diluting the book's doctrinal challenges, Weitz ends up with a film that feels not just unfinished but undone.