Tag: Kathy Bates

Misery (1990)

Misery (1990)

Obsessive fans wanting to control the narrative is nothing new in this tension-filled King adaptation

Director: Rob Reiner

Cast: James Caan (Paul Sheldon), Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes), Richard Farnsworth (Sheriff Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Deputy Virginia), Lauren Bacall (Marcia Sindell)

“I’m your number one fan”. Do any other words strike more fear into the hearts of celebrities? Stephen King’s Misery feels more and more ahead of the time. We live in an era where obsessed fans frequently take to YouTube (or obscure blogs – oh dear…) to shout their fury into the ether about how their beloved franchise has taken a wrong (i.e. counter to their head cannon) turn. Stephen King wasn’t a stranger to this: he’d already had fans in the mid-80s lambast his non-horror books. Misery takes it all a step further.

Successful novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has written a series of Mills & Boon style Victorian romance novels about a character called Misery Chastain. Wanting to restart a career as a serious novelist, Paul retreats to the depths of Colorado to put the finishing touches to his new non-Misery novel. Driving back to New York, he has a car accident. With two broken legs and fractured shoulder, he is dragged from his car by nurse and fanatic Misery fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Annie tells him not to worry: the phone lines will be back up soon and until then he can stay at her home. Until she discovers Paul has killed off Misery in his recently published book. A furious Annie makes it clear no one knows he’s there and that, if he ever wants to escape her secluded home, he’ll write a new Misery book to Annie’s personal specifications.

Misery is part horror, part deeply black comedy – a heightened fantasy of increasing paranoia powered by a superb performance by Kathy Bates that walks a fine line between grand guignol, farce and deluded tragedy. In many ways Annie, monstrous in her obsession, is a superb dark comic creation. She has an anorak-level obsessive knowledge about her passions, litters her speech with prudish replacement swear-words (“cockadoodie!”), bounces around the room with schoolgirlish excitement at having Paul in her presence and adores her pet pig (named, of course, Misery). Bates is energetic, wide-eyed and times kind of sweet.

But she’s also a chillingly ruthless and capable of great outbursts of rage and fury at the slightest provocation. A lonely woman with clear signs of being either bipolar or deeply depressed, sinking at times into “black dog” moods, stuffing herself with junk food in front of trashy TV, she relies on Paul’s books to give her a slice of the romantic, exciting life she feels she has missed out on. Like the most toxic fans today, she feels such emotion for the Misery books, she believes they belong to her personally – and if they deviate from what she wants it’s a personal affront. She is also so desperate to love and be loved, she takes a brutal control of the world around her, convinced that if she just works really hard the object of her admiration will admit he feels the same.

Bates is extremely good in a performance strikingly similar to Hopkins’ Lecter a year later (also, of course, Oscar winning). It’s a masterclass in actorly tricks, all deployed with triumphant expertise to create a character who is both darkly funny and terrifyingly controlling. Annie is so twisted that, in a way, doping Paul up on drugs and smashing his legs with a sledgehammer is like an expression of love. If he really understood what she was trying to do for him, how she knew the sort of books he should be writing, he’d never want to leave anyway right?

That leg smashing scene – and God it’s almost impossible to watch – is the height of Reiner’s taut direction that brilliantly makes this an endlessly tense chamber piece. The camera frequently shoots Annie from Paul’s prone position, meaning we are craning our heads up to look at her in exactly the same way he is. Later sequences, where Paul finally works out how to pick the lock of his room and explore (in his wheelchair) Annie’s kitsch-filled house with its shrines to her favourite celebrities, also place us on his visual level. Several scenes use tension effectively – you’ll catch your breath at the dropping of a model penguin, clench as Paul hides pills and knives around him for future escape attempts or sweat as Paul rushes to return to his room when Annie arrives home suddenly. But Reiner also threads in Hitchcockian wit throughout, amongst the tension.

It also gains a great deal from James Caan’s measured performance as Paul. Caan was last in a longlist of male actors offered the role (a sharp change from those days when Caan turned down roles that went on to win other actors Oscars) but willingly plays the passive, scared Paul with a low-key humbleness that works very well. He becomes someone who it is easy to root for.

Misery explores the lengths obsessive fans will go to to own their passions very well. Annie rejects Paul’s first attempt at humouring her with a new Misery book for its inconsistencies with previous novels (she clearly knows way more about it then him). That’s not even mentioning she demands he burns the (only) copy of his new non-Misery novel because “it’s not worthy of him” (being full of naughty words). It’s so good – and in a way prescient of where fandom is heading – it feels a cheap cop-out to also reveal Annie is a serial killer. Far more interesting is how quickly an unhealthy fixation could tip a maladjusted person from demands, to threats, to leg smashing fury.

Misery also fits a little too neatly into a trend – common at the time – of “regular guys” having their lives turned upside down by dangerous, deranged women (there are more than a few nods to Fatal Attraction and it’s not a surprise to hear Michael Douglas was offered the role). For all the dark skill Bates plays Annie with, we are rarely invited to sympathise with or understand her (she’s cemented as a freak with the discovery of her killer past) – again, how more interesting (and prescient) would it have been to just have a woman driven to extremes by obsessive monomania?

The film works best as a chamber piece. So much so, that any scene outside of the house feels superfluous – despite the excellent work from Richard Farnsworth as the local sheriff investigating Paul’s disturbance. Misery, with its abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, is sometimes a little too open in its huge debt to Psycho. But it’s ahead of its time in understanding the obsessive anger that lies under the surface of the darker elements of fandom – so much so you wish it had stuck to that.

On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Felicity Jones does earnest, dedicated work in an earnest, dedicated film: On the Basis of Sex

Director: Mimi Leder

Cast: Felicity Jones (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), Armie Hammer (Martin Ginsburg), Justin Theroux (Mel Wulf), Kathy Bates (Dorothy Kenyon), Sam Waterston (Erin Griswold), Cailee Spaeny (Jane C Gisnburg), Jack Raynor (James H Bozath), Stephen Root (Professor Brown)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an extraordinary person, her pioneering work to bring about sexual equality in the USA something that has made an actual, permanent change to her country for the better. This biopic covers the early years of this campaign in the 1970s, and if it at times gets a little too bogged down in the conventions of these sort of biopics, it does tackle them with genuine passion.

At Harvard in the mid-1950s, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is one of the first women allowed in to study law – and finds that she faces a battle to constantly prove that she deserves to be there. Her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), himself an accomplished lawyer, is endlessly supportive and encouraging, but Ruth continues to find that she struggles to be treated as an equal in the male dominated legal world of the 1950s and 60s. All this changes when her husband brings to her attention a tax case that discriminates against a male carer – and she realises this could be a vehicle to establish a precedent that American laws are unconstitutional when they discriminate on the basis of sex.

Mimi Leder directs a film full of warmth, respect and feeling for the importance of the story it is trying to tell. While it at times seems a tiny bit overwhelmed by the responsibility of bringing such a pioneering person’s story to the screen, it still manages to bring enough character and flair to it to make it an engaging watch. Perhaps you might feel at times you are only beginning to scratch the surface of RBG’s extraordinary life – but the film still treats you with the respect to assume that you can follow the legal arguments being outlined, even as it structures much of the film with clichés.

It does have some fine sequences in it though, not least a running visual image of Ruth walking up steps towards important buildings. The opening sees her lost in a crush of young male Harvard students, struggling to find her own space in a male dominated world. Later she climbs the steps outside the Court of Appeals, this time at the head of a progress of men following her behind. And finally the film bookends its opening Harvard steps sequence with Ruth – this time alone – climbing the steps of the supreme court: shots and cuts echo the opening of the film as Felicity Jones is slowly replaced by the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Felicity Jones does a decent job as Ginsburg, although she struggles with a slightly awkward make-up job to age her up. She however captures the fire in Ginsburg’s belly and her passion to right wrongs, as well as the demanding intellectual ability that at times made her a domineering and difficult person. She doesn’t always find much wit in the role, but she really wins the empathy of the audience with the injustice she faces – not least from the very start having to justify why she has taken a place at Harvard from a man in the first place.

It helps as well that she has such a fine scene partner for so much of the film in Armie Hammer, who is excellent as her supportive, way-ahead-of-his-time husband Martin. Taking on most of the domestic chores – and combined with his own brilliant career – Martin was as much a fascinating figure as Ruth. Hammer plays with a joyful, charismatic relish, perfectly mixing intellectual curiosity with an innate decency. It’s also a generous performance that complements Jones perfectly.

The relationship between these two is the emotional heart of the film, frequently raising warm smiles from the audience. An early scene where Martin is diagnosed with cancer after collapsing during a game of charades tugs at the heartstrings, not least for the sudden pained look of panic that crosses Martin’s face as he collapses, and Ruth’s protective rush to his side. These two argue once in the film – and that an argument based around Martin encouraging Ruth to live the life she wants – and the film goes out of its way to show that their life together was an equal partnership, where both were determined to support and protect the other.

It’s a lovely relationship to place at the film’s centre – even if Hammer is essentially playing the supportive wife role that so many biopics of men have featured (Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything for starters springs to mind!). That points at one of the weaknesses of the film: its predictability. Structurally it follows the route of many of these sort of biopics, with initial struggle, a cause, set-backs, pep-talks, sudden nerves before the eventual demonstration of triumph. Frankly nothing in the film narratively is remotely surprising, and Leder, despite a few touches of flair, largely directs with a workmanlike assurance.

Workmanlike is a little harsh, but is probably the film’s main weakness. While it’s well-played and has an excellent story – and, I will say it again, a script that largely expects its viewers to follow the legal points – it also can’t quite figure out a way to tell the story that doesn’t squeeze it into the biopic clichés that you’ve seen dozens of times before. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Not exactly: but it also makes the film at heart an engaging middle-brow drama, which seems a shame when Ruth Bader Ginsburg is anything but.

Primary Colors (1998)

John Travolta and Emma Thompson are definitely not the Clintons in Primary Colors

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: John Travolta (Governor Jack Stanton), Emma Thompson (Susan Stanton), Adrian Lester (Henry Burton), Billy Bob Thornton (Richard Jemmons), Kathy Bates (Libby Holden), Larry Hagman (Governor Fred Picker), Stacy Edwards (Jennifer Rodgers), Maura Tierney (Daisy Green), Diane Ladd (Mamma Stanton), Paul Guilfoyle (Howard Ferguson), Kevin Cooney (Senator Lawrence Harris), Rebecca Walker (March Cunningham), Allison Janney (Miss Walsh), Mykelti Williamson (Dewayne Smith)

In 1998, America was engrossed in what seemed like a never-ending series of scandals around Bill Clinton, with Clinton facing impeachment. The news was filled with Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal catch-ups seemingly non-stop. Surely in the middle of that, a film that charted earlier scandals about Slick Willie would be a hit? Well Primary Colors proved that wrong. A thinly veiled portrait of the Clinton run for the White House, based on a novel written by Joe Klein who followed the Clintons on the campaign, it tanked at the box office. Possibly due to audiences having Clinton-fatigue – but also perhaps because it’s a stodgy, overlong and slightly too pleased-with-itself piece of Hollywood political commentary.

The film sticks pretty close to real-life timelines. John Travolta is Arkansas Governor Jack Stanton (Travolta does a consistent impersonation of Bill Clinton both vocally and physically during the whole film), who’s running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, supported by his (perhaps) smarter, ambitious wife Susan (Emma Thompson, doing a neat embodiment of Hillary without impersonation). Eager young black political operator Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is recruited to help run the campaign – and finds himself increasingly drawn into the secrets of the Stantons, not least Jack’s persistent infidelities that seem to go hand-in-hand with his empathy and genuine passion for helping people. As scandal builds on scandal, the campaign to run for President becomes ever more unseemly.

Primary Colors asks questions that, to be honest, are pretty familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood film about politics. We’re presented with a Clinton-Stanton who wants to help America to re-educate itself in a modern world, who weeps with emotion when hearing a man recount his struggles with literacy (a fine cameo from Mykelti Williamson), who wants to rebuild America’s economy and build opportunities for all. And at the same time, he can’t keep it in his pants, is quite happy to dodge as much as possible the consequences of his actions, and is blithely disinterested in the impact his infidelities have on other people. Essentially the film wants to ask: at what point does a man’s personal behaviour and morals start to outweigh his good intentions?

It just takes a long time to ask it. A very long time. Primary Colors is a film that could easily be half an hour shorter, and you would miss very little. It’s a stodgy, overlong, smug drama that takes a gleeful delight in how clever it’s being making a film about the Clintons that-isn’t-about-them. It’s weakened as well by using an overly familiar device of putting a naïve and well-meaning audience surrogate character at its centre. We’ve seen this growth of disillusionment before, but Adrian Lester (in a break out role) fails to make Henry Burton a really interesting character – he’s little more than a cipher that we can project our views onto, and Lester is too reserved an actor to make him a character we can effectively invest in as a person. Instead he becomes a largely passive observer that more interesting characters revolve around.

Those characters being largely the Stantons themselves. John Travolta does a very good impersonation of Clinton, but he offers very little insight into the sort of person Clinton is, his motivations or his feelings. Like the character, the role is all performance and you never get a sense of how genuine his goals are and how much ambition is his main driver. As scandals pile up, Travolta is great at capturing Clinton’s sense of hurt that anyone would question his morals (even as his actions display his fundamental lack of them), but the role is short on depth. 

Emma Thompson gets less to play with as Hillary. In fact, she disappears from the second half of the film, after an affair plotline between her and Lester was cut completely from the film (something that makes certain scenes, where actors are clearly responding to this non-existent plotline, amusing to watch). But she manages to make the role something a little more than impersonation, delivering a whipper-sharp, ambitious woman who has buried her resentments about her husband’s betrayals under a wish to achieve a higher goal.

The rest of the cast deliver decent performances, but the stand-out is Kathy Bates as a long-time Stanton friend turned political fixer, who sees her idealisation of the Stantons turn to bitter disillusionment. Bates at first seems to be delivering another of her custom-made “larger than life” roles, but as the stuff hits the fan she layers it with a real emotional depth and complexity. It’s a caricature role that she turns into something real, a woman who feels genuine pain at seeing her deeply held political convictions and ideals being slowly disregarded by her heroes.

But then we get her point. Don’t we all feel a bit like that when we think back about Bill Clinton? The more we learn about his affairs and sexual scandals – and the more that #MeToo develops our understanding of how powerful men can abuse their power to take advantage of star-struck young women – the less sympathetic he seems. The film too suffers from some really out-of-date views of male sexuality. Billy Bob Thornton’s political fixer exposes himself early on in the film to a female worker, but this is shrugged off as “banter”, as opposed to a criminal offence – and the film largely avoids giving any air time to Stanton’s principal victim, the teenage daughter of a black restauranter whom he may or may not have impregnated. Stanton uses his power to gain sexual favours – one of his earliest acts is casually picking up a gawky English teacher who’s giving him a guided tour of her school (a funny cameo from Allison Janney) – but this is largely categorised as a personal weakness that doesn’t impact his suitability for the Presidency, something that feels more and more uncomfortable.

However, Primary Colors’ real problem is that it is overlong and a little bit too pleased with its intricate reconstruction of semi-true events. Although there are funny lines and decent performances, the film lacks any real zip and it gives no real insight into modern politics (other than perhaps deploring the compromises politicians must make) or the Clintons themselves. Instead it settles for telling us things we already know at great length and making safe but empty points about modern America. Far from exploring a Faustian pact where we accept deep personal failings in politicians because we believe that, overall, they could be a force for good, instead Primary Colors is all about turning shades of grey into obvious clear-cut moral choices.

The Blind Side (2009)

Sandra Bullock sets her own rules, campaigning for a better life for a young black man in The Blind Side

Director: John Lee Hancock

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Leigh Anne Tuohy), Tim McGraw (Sean Tuohy), Quinton Aaron (Michael Oher Tuohy), Jae Head (SJ Tuohy), Lily Collins (Collins Tuohy), Ray McKinnon (Coach Cotton), Kathy Bates (Miss Sue), Kim Dickens (Mrs Boswell)

Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for this sweet but unchallenging film, the sort of thing you could have expected to see on TV in the 1990s as a “movie of the week”. She plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a determined and driven woman who adopts and mentors Michael Oher (Quinton Aaaron), a gentle giant of a teenager who has grown up in foster care and who struggles with shyness. Michael has been accepted by his school for his potential skill, but the school can’t cater for his requirements for a less traditional teaching model (he struggles with reading and confidence). All that changes as Leigh Anne pushes for Michael to get the support he needs and encourages him to excel as a footballer.

This is the sort of naked crowd pleaser that will leave a smile on your face – and probably escape your mind after a few days. It’s devoid of challenge and ticks every single box you would expect this kind of rags-to-riches story to cover – the initial struggle, the growth in confidence, the setback, the rebound, the happy ending. It’s all there – and packaged very well by Hancock (heck the film won a surprise nomination for Best Picture).

It’s powered above all by a forceful, larger-than-life performance by Bullock, the sort of “personality” part that the actor has always excelled at (there is no doubt she’s a hugely engaging performer and always has been). Bullock grips the film by the horns and rips through the expected scenes. She’s a glamourous rich woman who isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the local gangsters! She’s wealthy but she’s still in touch with her roots! She’s beautiful but she wears the trousers in the household! It’s everything you would probably expect, and Bullock can more or less play it standing on her head. She brings all her expert comic timing and exuberance to bear and mixes it with an emotional concern and empathy rarely called for in the romcoms that have made up much of her career. In a weak year (Carey Mulligan in An Education was her only plausible rival for the little gold man) she took the prize.

It’s probably the only thing that The Blind Side will be remembered for, however much most people will enjoy it when watching it. Its story of good triumphant and a disadvantaged young man getting the chance to come to peace with himself and turn his life around, are bound to put a smile on most faces. There are lots of funny lines, and Leigh Anne is such a powerhouse she makes a chalk-and-cheese partnership with anyone she shares a scene with. But it’s basically not got a lot more to it than just showing you a rags-to-riches tale, with a few slight notes of racial tension thrown in (and then barely even explored in any depth). A more interesting film might have taken more note of the differences between the Tuohy’s background and the poverty of Michael’s childhood neighbourhood and the fate of the rest of the people who grew up (none of whom had his advantages). But this is more interested in presenting an unlikely, balsy, champion of the underdog promote his life.

I suppose you could say that this film tells the story of the troubled background and eventual success of a young black man and not only filters all this through the experience of a family of wealthy white people, but also suggests that the chances of a black man achieving this without the support of a white family was practically impossible. But, then this isn’t a film with a political agenda. It’s just trying to tell a charming, uplifting story. Take it on those terms and it’s enjoyable. Try to delve into it any deeper and it will puff up and disappear in a burst of feelgood warmth. But the only reason it will be remembered – the only reason why it even remotely stands out – is as the film Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for.

About Schmidt (2002)

Jack Nicholson is superb as beaten down Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt

Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: Jack Nicholson (Warren R Schmidt), Kathy Bates (Roberta Hertzel), Hope Davis (Jeannie Schmidt), Dermot Mulroney (Randall Hertzel), June Squibb (Helen Schmidt), Howard Hesseman (Larry Hertzel), Len Cariou (Ray Nichols)

When you think about About Schmidt, it’s almost impossible not to think about Jack Nicholson. For so long Nicholson has been JACK, a personality so large, so present in the public conscious as the ultimate raging lothario, that most of his performances have been unable to escape it. He has blasted through so many films as a force of nature that what’s almost most surprising about About Schmidt is that Nicholson is so feeble, worn-out, uncharismatic and beaten down in the lead role. Did I also mention he was brilliant?

Nicholson is Warren R Schmidt, a recently retired actuary with an Insurance company in Omaha. As a young man he dreamed of a golden future, but his life has been one of crushing mundanity and boredom (albeit, I will say, clearly very well paid!). Schmidt has become a cowed, average, hollow man – the sort of man who urinates sitting down because his wife insists he does so and whose idea of defiance is to pop out for a milkshake. After his wife (June Squibb) suddenly dies, he is forced to deal with the fact that he is actually largely estranged from his idealised daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) and that he despises her decent-but-no-hoper fiancée Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Can he make her abandon the wedding?

Alexander Payne has excelled in this style of film: a slightly off-centre social comedy with a mix of a lemony sharpness, satirical wit and genuine warmth for its characters. He perfectly captures the hopes and dreams of small-town America and the trap of mediocrity and disappointment that these sort of suburban, unremarkable lives can have. About Schmidt does this brilliantly, by counterpoising the Schmidt’s feelings of depression and being trapped with the clearly empty dreams of his daughter’s would-be husband. Not to mention taking shots at the overbearing try-too-hard irritability of Randall’s bohemian family (who seem to celebrate the very failures Warren believes his life has been made of).

Payne works in perfect synchronicity with Nicholson, keeping all the actor’s OTT gestures and mannerisms well in check and pushing him to create a quiet, timid, worn-out man who is beginning to reflect (with some bitterness) on what his life has been and been to suspect (with some dread) what it might be for his daughter. Nicholson’s comic timing and his sense of empathetic sadness are both absolutely perfect. The film uses a brilliant device to let us hear Schmidt’s inner monologue via his writing a series of letters to the African child Ndugo he is sponsoring (hilarious in that he unleashes on this no doubt uncomprehending young boy a series of bitter, reflective and sad cries from the heart).

The film is about the disappointments of life, but each point is told with a dark or wry humour. From Schmidt’s retirement party (an event that everyone seems to attend only out of duty) to the death of his wife (who collapses mid hoovering) there is a dark sense of humour throughout. Nicholson plays these moments with a world-weary sadness that keeps the character grounded. At other moments, he can let rip with a more overt comic touch as he struggles with the distaste and alarm he is far too polite to show as he stays with Randall’s bohemian family (Kathy Bates is very good as the matriarch of this clan, a woman whose laissez-faire attitude is a front for her tyranny).

The film’s plot is brilliantly simple, and is fundamentally about how far Schmidt can go in re-evaluating and re-claiming his life, giving his final years (with his actuary head on he believes he has between 10-12 years left) some sense of individuality. These attempts rotate from sad starry-night imagined conversations with his late wife to awkwardly comedic encounters with a nice couple at a camping site, whose signals he completely misreads. Schmidt is angry – and those moments when it bursts out to Ndugo are hilarious – but as much with himself as anyone else. After all, who do we have to blame more than ourselves? 

Schmidt isn’t even a bad guy. He’s spot on about Randall, a decent enough guy but a hopeless businessman and incompetent chancer. A large chunk of the film’s final act hinges on us knowing that Schmidt is right, knowing that is daughter is making a huge mistake, but also knowing that we’d be as powerless about it as Schmidt is. Because the film, in its darkly comic way, is saying that nearly all of us are on this treadmill – and that nearly all of us can see that others are as well – but we can’t do anything about it or help them get off. We can only watch the gears shifting on.

It’s a brilliant, thought-provoking film, very funny in places – and Jack Nicholson gets to remind us all that he a marvellous, clever and subtle actor, in one of his finest performances since the 1970s. Nicholson’s control and likeability are vital to making Schmidt someone whom we warm to and pity, even while he frustrates. And Payne’s wonderfully directed, empathetic story illustrates a life of tragedy without meaning and dreams, but never scoffs at those who lead them – instead it’s only wistfully sad for what might have been.

The Golden Compass (2007)

How did it all go wrong? The disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz

Cast: Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Jim Carter (John Faa), Clare Higgins (Ma Costa), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Derek Jacobi (Magisterial Emissary), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel), Jack Shepherd (Master of Jordan College), Ian McKellen (Iorek Byrnison), Freddie Highmore (Pantalaimon), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson), Kathy Bates (Hester), Kristin Scott Thomas (Stelmaria)

After the success of The Lord of the Rings, bookshops were stripped of all epic fantasy novels with a cross-generational appeal by film producers, their mouths watering at the prospect of having another billion-dollar licence to print money. Nearly all of these projects bombed, but I’m not sure any of them bombed harder than this, an attempt to kick-start a trilogy of films based on Philip Pullman’s both loved and controversial His Dark Materials books. What went so completely wrong?

Pullman’s trilogy is set in an alternative-Oxford, where people all have Dæmons, part of their soul that lives outside their body in animal form. It’s a world where the Magisterium, a powerful organisation, suppresses all free thought, in particular all investigation into the mysterious particle dust. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan raised in Jordan College, who saves the life of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is investigating Dust in the North. Leaving the college with the mysterious Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who may or may not be involved in a series of child kidnappings, she eventually finds herself drawn more and more into setting right the problems of her world.

The Golden Compass is a film that pleased no-one. Fans of the book generally hated it. The people who hated the books hated it. The people who hated what they had been told the book was about hated it. Why did the studio decide to make a film in the first place about a book series they seemed to know was controversial from the start? If they didn’t really want to embrace the themes of the books, why bother? Pullman’s books are partly adventure stories, partly intricate world building, partly spiritual discussions – and yes partly atheist tracts with a strong anti-Establishment-church bent (with a more general regard for genuine faith). To put it bluntly, that’s a lot of ideas to try and squeeze into a film – particularly a film well under two hours.

So The Golden Compass is a mess that feels like it’s been put together by committee. It’s been cut to within an inch of its life – scenes jump incredibly swiftly from event to event, often with the barest of clunky explanation voiceover (“We’re going to see Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians”) to tell you what’s going on. Pages and pages of dialogue and character seem to be lost. We are constantly told Lyra is “special” but never shown anything that supports or explains this. An Eva Green-voiced infodump opens the film: clearly the producers were thinking about Peter Jackson’s masterful opening to The Fellowship of the Ring, which skilfully introduces everything. This introduction though is about removing all the mystery and magic of the story as soon as possible by stating it bluntly up-front.

The biggest mess is of course the way the film avoids all reference to Pullman’s religious themes. No reference is made at all to the Magisterium being a church. No reference is made at all to religion or faith. Iorek is clearly being held in a Russian Orthodox painted church – but the building is referred to throughout as an “office”. Derek Jacobi plays one of the principal Cardinal antagonists of the third book – no reference is made to his office. The Magisterium is instead just a “shady organisation” – a controlling gestapo-type organisation, with black uniforms and creepy Albert Speer style buildings. The questions of Dust and original sin – so central to the motivations of the story – are completely unexplained, meaning the child kidnapping and sinister intercission the villains are carrying out makes no sense at all. How on earth they planned to continue not talking about religion in their planned third film is a complete mystery.

This rushing is the problem throughout the film. Stuff just happens really, really quickly for no real reason. Characters pop up to introduce themselves for later films, or to drop clunky exposition. Tom Courtenay explains what an aleitheometer is for us (the film constantly brings up this “Golden Compass” and its future-telling properties, without ever really making them feel important for anything that happens in the film). Eva Green flies in to say she’s a witch and how pleased she is to meet Lyra and promptly flies off. Daniel Craig name checks Dust, gets captured then disappears. Sam Elliott introduces his rabbit Dæmon and shoots a couple of things. None of this gets any chance to grow and develop – and you end up not caring about any of these characters. Nearly every plot event from the first book is kept in – but so rushed you don’t give a toss.

The structure of the film has also been changed from the book, and not for the better. The film (probably thinking about later films) increases the presence of the Magisterium throughout – but without really making their antagonist role clear. Lyra and Iorek’s defeat of Iorek’s usurper Ragnar is moved to before the final defeat of the Gobbler’s ice base – this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Iorek now commands an army of bears, why doesn’t he bring them along for the final battle? Lyra instead wanders up to the base like an idiot, and the film extends the release of the children from the ice base into a big battle in order to give us a Lord of the Rings style finish. It doesn’t matter that nothing in the film feels like it’s building plotwise or dramatically towards this battle – it’s there you feel, because Lord of the Rings had battles and people loved that, so let’s get one in here. 

In fact the film builds towards nothing, because it has been cut so poorly, and is such a terrible compromised product, that everything the books are building towards has been removed from it. So the entire thing makes no bloody sense. The clash with the church and organised religion doesn’t work because all reference to faith has been cut. There are mutterings about a “war” coming, but no one says what it might be about. There is a loose crusade to save the kidnapped children – but we don’t understand either side of this. The cruelly ironic ending of the book, with Lord Asriel’s real plan revealed, is deleted altogether from the film – because the studio didn’t want a “downer” ending. As a result the film just suddenly ends (after a clunky “We’ll go home one day after this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and after we’ve solved all the problems of the world” speech).

Studio interference reeks off this whole film. It’s been cut to ribbons. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee were parachuted into the cast in order to make the film feel more like Lord of the Rings. McKellen sounds completely wrong as a mighty armoured bear (original casting Nonso Anozie would have been perfect). Lee chips in a single line in what is painfully obviously an addition from re-shoots. Anything potentially different or interesting is cut out. In fact anything that was unique about Pullman’s original books is cut out: as much is done as possible to make Pullman’s story as identikit and standard as hundreds of other bland fantasy dramas. As if they hadn’t realised the book was potentially really controversial in the more traditional parts of the US market, it seems like the studio only really read the books once the film was shot, suddenly realised they had made a massive mistake, and tried to reduce the danger as much as possible by making the film as bland as they possible could.

Chris Weitz is completely unsuited for directing it – and he actually feels like a hostage the more you read about the film’s turbulent production – but it’s not all bad. Dakota Blue Richards is actually pretty good as Lyra – she’s got a certain magic charisma. The set design is pretty terrific – even if it is a lot more steampunk than I pictured the novel as being. The special effects are pretty goods – the Dæmons are well done, and the puff of gold Dust they turn into when someone dies is striking. Some of the adult casting is pretty good – Kidman is just about perfect, Craig is pretty good, Sam Elliott stands out as Lee Scoresby. There are some neat cameos as well – I would have liked to see Jacobi get to tackle the third book, Eva Green is wasted, Tom Courtenay is pretty good. It just all rushes by so quickly. You don’t get the chance to get to know anyone fully. If the book was a bit episodic, this takes that worst element of it and ramps it up to eleven.

The Golden Compass tanked. It tanked so hard, New Line Cinema didn’t really recover. All plans for future films were scrapped. However, it is important in another way. In presenting such a horrifically neutered, stripped-down version of the story, it persuaded a lot of people that books rich in world building and content like this needed much longer than a traditional film to be brought to life. It helped persuade George RR Martin that TV was the way to go when selling the rights for Game of Thrones. And His Dark Materials will now live again as a 10 part TV series in the near future. For all its many, many failures – we owe it something.