Dir: John Crowley. Starring: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, and Nicole Kidman. 15 cert, 149 mins
There’s a morbid curiosity surrounding The Goldfinch’s disastrous translation to the big screen. It’s a cinematic puzzle box. We poke and prod it, hoping to magically uncover the answer as to why a film with everything in its favour could turn so sour. The film’s an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by Donna Tartt. It has a talented director in the form of John Crowley, who already succeeded beautifully in transposing a book to the big screen with 2015’s Brooklyn. Its cast – Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Finn Wolfhard – has serious clout. It even has the talents of Roger Deakins, the best cinematographer working today. But, after it landed at the Toronto Film Festival with a leaden thud, its measly US opening of $2.6m turned out to be one of the worst in cinematic history.
It’s not an easy to task to pinpoint what exactly about The Goldfinch feels so limp. Certainly you could say it was felled by its own ambitions. At nearly 800 pages long, Tartt’s book is weighty enough to be used as a weapon, allowing its author the luxury of writing both a sprawling odyssey and a lengthy psychological examination of its lead character. Theo – played by Oakes Fegley as a child, Ansel Elgort as an adult – is a survivor of the terrorist bombing at the Met that killed his mother. From the rubble, he salvages her favourite painting, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch (a real work created in 1654, currently housed in The Hague). It becomes a tortured kind of talisman for Theo, as he carries it with him through the various misfortunes of his life.
At first, he finds a home with the impeccably wealthy Barbours and their cold-eyed matriarch, Samantha (Kidman). He makes friends with Hobie (Wright), an antique dealer and the guardian of the young girl (Aimee Laurence) he connected with moments before the blast. Out of the blue, Theo’s absentee father (Luke Wilson) and equally shady girlfriend Xandra (Paulson) rock up, demanding he come live with them in the outskirts of Vegas, in a housing development that’s slowly being reclaimed by the desert.
The film eventually circles back to its opening scene, where an adult Theo contemplates suicide in an Amsterdam hotel. But there’s no mystery to how the film reaches that point, since it actually turns out to be part of a bizarre epilogue that veers into pure thriller territory. The Goldfinch holds you captive while it fumbles around, desperately trying to make you believe in it. It fades in and out between past and present, with images blurring into each other (thanks to Deakins they are, at least, beautiful images). The effect is supposed to be that of some horrid dream, but the result feels more like a drunken haze.
Peter Straughan’s screenplay is simply too timid to take a pair of shears to Tartt’s original work. More crucially, it seems unable to excavate the real heart of the story. The hope is that a series of pretty symbols will do the trick instead and it’ll all somehow come together. We repeatedly see The Goldfinch lying unblemished in the art museum rubble. The air is thick with dust and there’s a disquieting stillness. As Theo walks through the aftermath of the explosion, it’s depicted like a Greek hero’s journey through the Underworld, as ghosts call out to him with prophetic messages.
But it’s all poeticism without a sense of humanity, since the characters themselves aren’t written as people, but as broad statements. Kidman’s Samantha can only express emotion through significant glances, while her son’s entire character is an angry jock caricature: he sits down for breakfast, screams “who do I have to blow to get a cup of coffee around this place?”, and then bangs his fists on the table. Then there’s Wolfhard’s Boris, a Russian-accented latchkey kid who’s styled in post-punk cosplay and can’t be onscreen for more than five minutes without offering someone vodka. The Goldfinch is handsomely staged and filled with all the extravagant tragedy we’d expect from a film about rich, sad New Yorkers, but it’s far too wrapped up in the search for its own meaning. And that’s a pretty tiresome thing to watch.
The Goldfinch is released in UK cinemas on 27 September
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