Dakota Blue Richards: Golden child
An all-star cast and all-out controversy. Ed Power reports from The Golden Compass set -- and meets young star Dakota Blue Richards
YOU CAN see why Hollywood has high hopes for lavish sword and sorcery epic The Golden Compass.
Featuring an exotic cast of villains and heroes, the best special effects $150m will buy and a chilling wicked witch turn from Nicole Kidman, the film boasts all the ingredients of a Christmas smash in the vein of The Lord Of The Rings. Certainly that's the belief of New Line Cinema, the studio that bankrolled Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning trilogy.
Adapted from the first volume of Philip Pullman's 15-million selling His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass has, New Line is confident, the potential to become a blockbuster franchise in its own right.
But whereas The Lord Of The Rings was explicitly rooted in Christian values, The Golden Compass has a more ambiguous lineage. In Pullman's books, the Christian church is re-imagined as the totalitarian Magisterium, a sinister cabal of scheming clerics (the sequence culminates with the death of God, described as a feeble, demented old man, passing into history crying like an infant).
Naturally, such a premise has proved controversial, especially in the United States, where Catholic campaigners accuse the author, and by implication the filmmakers, of trying to sneak atheism in through the back door.
The Golden Compass tells the story of Lyra Belacqua (portrayed in the movie as a Dickensian rapscallion by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards -- more on her later), an orphan in Jordan College, Pullman's alternative-universe version of Oxford.
As a baby, Lrya was put in the care of the Jordan scholars by her dashing uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Like all the characters in Pullman's world, she is accompanied everywhere by her "daemon", a shapeshifting animal which will settle into permanent form once its "owner" grows up -- the daemon is Pullman's metaphor for the soul.
As the film opens, Asriel has returned to Jordan to announce an earth-shattering discovery: a gateway to alternate dimensions. The entrance way is also a conduit for "dust", a mystical substance the merest mention of which causes members of the Magisterium to go clammy with dread.
No sooner has Asriel departed to seek the gateway first hand than Lyra is visited by the mysterious and glamorous Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman, channelling the wicked queen from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs).
Wooed away from Jordan by Mrs Coulter, Lyra soon finds herself on the run, pursued both by Coulter and by the sinister forces of the Magisterium, determined to prevent news of Asriel's breakthrough reaching the wider world.
Eventually, she makes her way to the frozen north, where she gains the confidence of a group of talking bears (the deposed bear-king Lorek Byrnison is voiced by Ian McKellen) and learns the full horror of what Mrs Coulter and the Magisterium are plotting.
The most trenchant critic of the film has been the Catholic League in the United States. "Pullman represents the new face of atheism -- it is aggressive, dogmatic and unrelenting," it states in a booklet entitled The Golden Compass, Agenda Unmasked.
"It is also fuelled by hate -- by a crusading hatred of all religions, but most especially ours. His side is counting on our side to lie down and die. He may have experienced little resistance in (Europe), but it's a different story here."
It's worth noting that nobody in the Catholic League had seen The Golden Compass when making their attacks. Had they done so, perhaps they would not have felt so strongly.
Far from promoting atheism, the finished movie is at pains to tiptoe around Pullman's supposed anti-clericalism. Although the Magisterium remains, its agents now more closely resemble Nazi thugs or Stalinist secret police than mendacious priests.
Meanwhile, the film's stars have weighed in to defend it against charges of God-bashing: "I was raised Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence. I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic," Kidman has said.
Craig, too, has pleaded against rushing to judgement: "These books are not anti-religious. I think that mainly they're anti-misuse of power -- whether it's religious or political."
If director Chris Weitz hoped the softly-softly approach would get him off the hook, he was wrong. Ironically, his decision to gut the plot of its overt atheism has proved controversial in its own right.
While American Catholics protest that the movie is anti-religious, hardcore devotees of the novel are, it appears, angry that it isn't anti-religious enough.
This controversy has been brewing for some time. Two years ago Weitz, director of screwball-comedies-with-a heart-of-gold, American Pie and About A Boy, levelled with Pullman fans. He said the film would downplay, if not completely obviate, the anti-religious nuances of the books: "New Line is a company that makes films for economic concerns. You would hardly expect them to be anything else," he told the Pullman fansite bridgetothestars.net.
"They have expressed worry about the possibility of HDMs' (His Dark Materials') perceived anti-religiosity making it an unviable project financially... All my best efforts will be directed towards keeping HDM as liberating and iconoclastic an experience as I can. But there may be some modification of terms. You will probably not hear of the 'Church', but you will hear of the 'Magisterium'."
To his horror, Weitz was accused of betraying the "true" message of Pullman's books: ie, God is a control-freak who should be dethroned.
So intense was the hostility directed at him, he temporarily quit the film (aghast, Pullman wrote to Weitz begging that he reconsider). Considering she was just 11 when cast as Lyra (having auditioned along with 10,000 others) Dakota Blue Richards seems, not surprisingly, to be cheerfully unaware of the furore.
In fact, the realisation that she is playing the central character in a major Hollywood production appears to be still sinking in.
"It was great fun being on set but the most surprising thing was how normal everybody was," she recalls. "Nicole Kidman -- I mean, you have an idea of what she might be like from the cinema. But she was nothing like that. She was really lovely to me. And Daniel Craig was very nice too. He had loads of advice. So the first thing I discovered was that actors are normal people.
"The only difference is that they're more famous than everybody else. I remember asking everyone in the cast to sign a copy of the book for me: Nicole wrote 'Be true to yourself' which is probably the best advice you could give someone my age coming into this business."
She does, however, recall one "scary" scene, in which Kidman suddenly switched into cackling villain mode: "There was one moment where, all of sudden, she started being quite unpleasant to my character.
"And that took me aback because I was used to Nicole as this very nice person, and now she was cruel Mrs Coulter."
Richards, whose previous acting experience was limited to amateur theatre, reveals that she almost didn't try for role. "I heard about it on (children's news programme) Newsround. And my mother and I thought 'why not?'
"But if it had been raining on the day, I'm not sure we would have gone. When so many people are up for a part, you never think you're going to be the one." Despite an "okay" audition, she never seriously believed she was a contender for the part. "One day I came home from school and was in a really grumpy mood. And then this call came through from Chris.
"My mother tried to put him on speaker phone. Somehow, she managed to hang up on him. He called back and said I was going to be Lyra -- I screamed. And then I did a little dance in my living room." n
The Golden Compass is on general release