There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed eminently possible that The Goldfinch could be a bona fide awards season contender. The source material is a Pulitzer-winning 2013 novel by Donna Tartt, the director John Crowley’s last film, Brooklyn, was nominated for Oscars and the cast includes heavyweight performers like Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman. However, the movie debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month to vicious reviews and has since become a box office bomb Stateside. It’s certainly a curious, baffling cinematic experience.
Theo Decker (Pete’s Dragon actor Oakes Fegley) loses his mother in a bombing at an art gallery. It quickly becomes apparent that Theo also took something from the scene, in the shape of the titular painting by Rembrandt protégé Carel Fabritius. The young Theo goes to live with a family friend (Nicole Kidman) and visits antique dealer Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) based on a ring he was given by a victim of the bombing. When his estranged father (Luke Wilson) turns up, he relocates to Las Vegas and befriends Ukrainian immigrant Boris (Finn Wolfhard). Years later, Theo (Ansel Elgort) has helped Hobie turn his business around, but things start to change when Boris (Aneurin Barnard) comes back into his life.
It’s an understatement to say that The Goldfinch is overloaded with plot. The ensemble cast is sprawling and packed with A-listers – Sarah Paulson is great, but is only on screen for five minutes – to the extent that it’s difficult to keep track of how all of these characters are linked. Tartt’s book is a weighty tome and it’s one that the film noticeably struggles to grapple with, even with a gratuitous running time of two and a half hours. Crowley’s film isn’t awful, necessarily, but there’s a narrative anaemia that leaves the whole thing feeling flat.
Ansel Elgort is one of the biggest victims of this adaptation, handed pages of treacly, pseudo-philosophical voice-over about blame and hope. His Theo, too, is a thoroughly unlikeable and smug protagonist – a stark contrast to the more layered work Fegley is able to do as the younger version of the character. Few of the cast members fare particularly well, with both Wolfhard and Barnard grappling with dodgy, cartoonish Eastern European accents while the likes of Jeffrey Wright and Nicole Kidman barely get a shred of room to spread their wings.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t elements to The Goldfinch that really do work. Through the reliable lens of ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film has real moments of visual splendour and, when the third act allows a sort of quasi-caper to develop around the painting, the movie finds a higher storytelling gear. Unfortunately, in order to get to the meat of the narrative, Crowley forces his audience to sit through two hours of maudlin piffle.
The Goldfinch suffers from the fact that a movie, however lengthy, will always struggle to spell out its themes and nuance as explicitly as an 800-page novel. At times, it simply feels as if Peter Straughan’s script appears to simply be ticking off melodramatic clichés from a list – car driven off into the desert, children beaten by angry parents, alcoholism, drug addiction – rather than constructing a coherent, interesting story. This isn’t helped by Trevor Gureckis’ overwrought, melodramatic musical score, which is always tinkling away in an uber-serious, foreboding way.
There’s too much to get through in The Goldfinch and not a strong enough sense of prioritising what should’ve actually made the cut in adapting from page to screen. Talented performers are squandered on characters without a shred of depth and, by the time the story actually finds its groove, many viewers will be too busy snoozing to care. Maybe this one should’ve stayed on the bookshelf.
Dir: John Crowley
Scr: Peter Straughan
Cast: Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Finn Wolfhard, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Aimee Laurence, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald
Prd: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson
DOP: Roger Deakins
Music: Trevor Gureckis
Run time: 149 mins
The Goldfinch is in UK cinemas now.