Step aside Harry Potter, there's a new child hero in town! The first of a trilogy by best-selling author Philip Pullman, 'The Golden Compass' is one of the most anticipated films this year and ahead of its world premiere in London on Tuesday (November 27), cast and director spoke about the story that has already attracted controversy.
The story of The Golden Compass is set in a world where witches rule the northern skies, ice bears are the bravest of warriors, and where every human is joined with an animal spirit who is as close to them as their own heart. But this world is dominated by the Magisterium, which seeks to control all of humanity and whose greatest threat is the last remaining golden compass and the one child destined to possess it.
Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua (played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) lives an extraordinary life as a ward of distinguished Jordan College in Oxford, tearing unsupervised through the streets with her loyal friend Roger (Ben Walker). Lyra is accompanied everywhere by her daemon, Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore) - a small, ever-changing animal that serves as a constant voice of reason.
Casting the unknown Dakota Blue Richards, was a risk for 'American Pie' director Chris Weitz, but one he took gladly. He was opposed to casting an American actress in the role as he says it was so quintessentially English that it had to be a British actress: "It started with having thousands of girls come in for an audition and eventually it just came down to one and I think she was the right one of all those thousands so I think there's something kind of fairytale-like about the process of choosing her and I hope that we have changed her life for the better as opposed to worse," he said.
Hailing from Brighton, on the east coast of England, Dakota Blue Richards auditioned amongst thousands of girls and was a fan of her character Lyra ever since she knew the books and had seen a play. "Oh I really really wanted to play this role because my mother had read the books to me and I'd seen the play at the National Theatre and I love the character so much I wanted to be just like her."
Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel played by Daniel Craig, embarks on a trip to the Arctic Circle to investigate a mysterious element called 'dust' but the Magisterium wants to stop him. At the same time , rumours of children mysteriously disappearing become real when Lyra's best friend Roger goes missing. A new figure appears - Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) is a beguiling scientist and wants to take Lyra with her to the Arctic Circle.
Director Weitz, who screened a small part of the fantasy movie at this year's Cannes Film Festival, already received criticism by fans of the book that he was whitewashing the story's more religious themes for the film, for instance referring to the 'Church' as the 'Magisterium'. Says Weitz, "We kind of get it on both sides - both people on the far right who are worried that we are peddling atheism and then people who are fans of the book but only of its religious elements and who think that we are watering down the theological content of the books. I think neither is the case, it's not an aggressively atheistic story first of all but that it does have religious elements which I have done my best to keep in the movie although not necessarily in as aggressive a way as certain people might like."
Daniel Craig adds, "If you read the books, I think you might find them to be incredibly spiritual and they do raise a very good debate, individualism, free will, understanding the world, dealing with it, facing up to your responsibilities, looking after your fellow human beings or animals in this case, and those are fairly core-Christian beliefs, I don't think you can argue that. What it does say fairly strongly against and you could say it's organized religion but actually living in a totalitarian society is on the whole pretty uncomfortable and should be fought against."
The star-studded cast also includes Bond girl Eva Green in the role of a witch, who acts as an almost maternal guardian angel for Lyra and supports her in her quest. Both Green and Kidman were full of praise for Dakota Blue Richards for her performance. "Dakota is a very strong child, very intelligent. She had school breaks during the day and she came back all fresh and focussed all the time and she knows what she has to do, I didn't have to give her any advice she's a strong little actress. It's a big part, big movie and she's very confident in a nice way and I think she's captivating."
Adds Kidman, "The thing about Dakota is she has a great Mum and she's very poised. I don't know if you've interviewed her yet , but it's why she got the role, I think, because Lyra is meant to have this intelligence and this seriousness and extraordinary will and wilfulness and I think that Dakota has all of those things in abundance. I find it condescending if you start giving a kid advice, and she's not a kid. She's this young girl who pretty much knows a lot about herself and I just stood back and let her do her thing. Tried not to boss her around too much."
'The Golden Compass' is the first in a trilogy, with the second book 'The Subtle Knife' and the third 'The Amber Spyglass' also to be turned into movies.
Kidman is keen to be asked back for more: "Oh yeah! I'm hoping. I mean a lot of times as an actor you sign on for a film and you don't want to do a sequel. You think, 'Oh gosh, please, No!' But for me when you read the books they get better and so particularly for my character. She gets to evolve and these layers get peeled away and it's just a great role so I'm really hoping."
Whilst Dakota Blue Richards will inevitably shoot to fame, she remains very down-to-earth as to what career she would like to have: "I want to act but I don't want to do it as a full-time job, like say if a film comes along that has like either a really good story or I really like the character then I'll do it but I don't want to always be acting. I want to be a supply teacher in primary school."
"The Golden Compass" will be in cinemas through Europe, the Americas and Asia starting December 7.