By Benjamin Akpan
John Crowley is a film director, whose last feature film — 2015’s Brooklyn — seemingly solidified him as a director to watch. Earning him the BAFTA for Best British Film, Brooklyn is a touching tale with a delightful visual style, led by Saoirse Ronan’s endearing performance. Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch is a Pulitzer award-winning work with complex, lovable characters set in a world that is flowery and full of life. Though critically divisive, the novel is nonetheless a poetic story rich with action, mystery, and romance that keeps you deeply immersed until the last of its nearly 800 pages.
Together, that should be the perfect combination for an outstanding work rich with fascinating characters, a titillating plotline, and a rush of acclaim. But John Crowley’s adaptation of The Goldfinch is an overlong, burdensome catastrophe that is as laughable as it is disappointing. It is an ineffectual, surface-level effort that never really lifts off the ground. Some of it works, most of it doesn’t, and the dissonance is unmistakably manifest.
John Crowley’s adaptation opens in essentially the same words as Tartt’s novel: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” Immediately, we are introduced to Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort), laying in a hotel room, recounting the tale of how he’s gotten to the point he’s at. Eight years before, Theo’s mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the moment, Theo grabs hold of The Goldfinch – the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius (who, incidentally, also died in an explosion in the same year of the painting). The artwork, quite truthfully, is the only reason Theo’s still alive. Masked behind the desire to admire the painting further, Theo stays behind to stare at Pippa, a mysterious red-headed girl he’s suddenly enamoured of, as his mother heads straight into the thick of the tragedy. Over the next couple of years, Theo is moved from one place to another: first to the home of a wealthy friend whose mother, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) takes dearly to him. Next, to his uninvolved, deadbeat father (Luke Wilson) and his erratic girlfriend (a very tan Sarah Paulson); then eventually back into the arms of Pippa and Hobie her guardian (Jeffrey Wright), an antique dealer on the brink of bankruptcy.
There’s a lot that happens in between that the film doesn’t tell us. Tartt’s novel is expressive to a fault, using up a large part of its pages meticulously articulating detail: the layering of debris-covered bodies upon the MET floor; the passing, sympathetic glances from Mrs. Barbour as she observes Theo; even the paintings in the MET are described with many a minutia. But Crowley’s adaptation glosses over a lot of the book’s particulars and loses its emotional effect in the process. Peter Straughan’s script lacks the one thing that every good script should have: tonal coherence. The unnecessary restructuring of the story into nonlinearity and the sporadically jarring editing is disorienting, just as much as the tonal lapses are a disconnection from whatever momentum the film might’ve been building.
And, showcasing a fine example of sleepwalking is the stellar cast of The Goldfinch, who search for moments of insight within a script so badly strung together, they perfunctorily linger in its blandness. Ansel Elgort is lost in a character that is merely a shadow of something that could’ve been better, and even Nicole Kidman’s artful presence is unable to save this drag. Jeffrey Wright struggles to breathe life into Hobie, and his scenes with Oakes Fegley are middling. Fegley – playing a young Theo – does the best with what he’s given, though much of his scenes are crippled by the wooden editing. The ensemble cast is criminally underused, boxed into roles that are poorly written and barely developed.
Yet, for a film with nearly no redeeming factors, the bits that work, work really well: Roger Deakins’ cinematography is visually tantalizing, and Trevor Gureckis’ score is gripping, and the power is in its ability to persevere through the film’s tonal confusion.
Carel Fabritius’ painting is important to Theo because it is the one last thing that reminds him of his mother. Ever blaming himself for her death, it serves as both a source of regret and consolation. There’s barely an exploration of Theo’s grief, trauma, or the internalizations that result from them. Despite some definite artistic expertise, The Goldfinch is a lifeless shell with very little to say. With a plot so convoluted, what is left is a rushed – but pretty – adaptation, and a happily-ever-after ending that feels unearned and pointlessly melodramatic.
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*Editor’s Note: The Goldfinch premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘19 is slated for release on September 13, 2019.