THE GOLDFINCH

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: John Crowley

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Finn Wolfhart, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Sarah Paulson, Aneurin Barnard, Dennis O’Hare, Robert Joy, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald, Boyd Gaines.

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch (2019)

This lacklustre adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2013 novel, which spent 30 weeks at the tops of the best seller lists, is something of a massive misfire. The Dickensian novel was essentially a coming of age tale that spanned nearly a decade and followed the troubled journey of its protagonist Theodore Decker. In trying to condense the nearly 800-page tome for the screen, script writer Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, etc) has distilled the essence of the novel, and picked the eyes out of its main characters and key incidents. But this is a rather flat and unengaging adaptation that will disappoint many who have read the acclaimed novel.

Theodore (played by Oakes Fegley, from Pete’s Dragon, etc) was 13 when he visited New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to check out an exhibition of Dutch masters. Amongst the painting was one of his mother’s favourites, the titular The Goldfinch, one of the few surviving works from seventeenth century painter Carel Fabrius, who was ironically killed in an explosion in his studio in Delft in 1654. There was a bomb blast at the museum which killed his mother and several other visitors. Amongst the ruins he meets a stranger, who gives him a ring and an address, and also points to the painting lying on the ground, covered in dust. Theodore takes the ring to the address, where he meets antique furniture dealer Hobart (Jeffrey Wright, from Casino Royale, etc) and Pippa. But Theo keeps the painting because it represents that final tangible connection with his mother.

Sometime later he moves into the Park Avenue apartment with the wealthy Barbour family, whose son Andy is a friend from school, and there he is welcomed and treated with kindness by the mother (Nicole Kidman). But later Theo’s deadbeat estranged father (Luke Wilson) arrives to take him to Las Vegas to live with him and his girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). There Theo meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard, from It, Stranger Things, etc) the abused son of a Russian émigré, who introduces him to vodka and drugs. A strong friendship develops between these two misfits. But after his father reveals his true colours and is subsequently killed in a car crash, Theo moves back to New York where he begins work with Hobart.

A decade later Theo (played by Ansel Elgort, from Baby Driver, etc) reconnects with the adult Boris (now played by Aneurin Barnard, from Dunkirk, etc) and is drawn into an underworld of art theft and drugs and crime, and he learns a darker secret about the painting.

The Goldfinch deals with universal themes like grief, friendship, family, deception, obsession, art, love, and redemption. The film unfolds in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth in time, and it lacks cohesion and clarity and its structure will confuse those unfamiliar with the source material. It makes it hard for audiences to make an empathetic connection with many of the characters.

The film has been directed by John Crowley, who gave us the superb Brooklyn in 2015, but here his direction lacks the same assurance and confidence. He infuses the material with a touch of melancholy. The film lacks any real sense of urgency or energy and the slow, measured pacing hardly makes for compelling viewing over the inordinately long and slow 150-minute running time. The film is supposedly part drama and part thriller, but the suspense fails to kick in. The best parts of the film, for me at least, concerned the wonderful and off beat relationship between Theo and Boris who find each other in the Nevada desert.

Crowley has assembled a solid ensemble cast though to flesh out the characters. Kidman brings a brittle, cold and detached quality to her restrained and introverted performance here. Of the two performers bringing Theo to life, Fegley is clearly the standout with an enthusiastic and energetic rendering of the character that captures his angst and bewilderment and inner torment. Cast largely against type, Wilson is good as Theo’s unreliable father.

The film has been nicely shot by Roger Deakins, who gives the material a slick and glossy surface. Production values are also excellent.

Ultimately, this is a wasted opportunity as the sprawling novel would have been better served as a mini-series which would have allowed for more insightful character development and more detailed building of Theo’s world.

★☆

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