Current Issue #488

Film Review: The Goldfinch

Film Review: The Goldfinch

This mightily epic filming of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel tries hard, and does feature some strong playing and powerful emotion amongst a little padding and ponderousness.

Tartt’s bestseller is almost 900 pages long and has a scope and complexity that would have been better suited to a Netflix miniseries, and yet director John Crowley (of Brooklyn) and screenwriter Peter Straughan bravely attempt to turn this into something more than what they called a mere “greatest hits” package of themes, events and cherry-picked details from the book.

The result is rather better than its reputation and dreadful box-office would suggest, but the thing still probably works best as a series of individual sequences and interludes instead of a fully coherent saga.

Told in the expected non-chronological style, this opens with the adult Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort from Baby Driver and some of the Divergent movies) in an Amsterdam hotel room and explaining via grim narration that no matter how others insist otherwise, he’s always felt responsible for the death of his mother. The trailers and reviews have made clear how she actually perished, but the film keeps it uncertain for a while, as we cut to the younger Theo (Oakes Fegley) shortly after her death, stuck without a parent in the absence of his missing Dad, and therefore sent (improbably?) to stay with the moneyed Barbour family, whom he’s connected to due to his former friendship with Andy (Ryan Foust, a very young Broadway star).

Dealing (and not dealing) with his shock and stunned grief, Theo grows closer to Samantha Barbour, who’s of course played by Nicole Kidman doing her emotionally pinched routine. Just when he seems to be settling in, however, his Dad Larry (Luke Wilson) reappears with tawdry partner Xandra (Sarah Paulson from TVs American Horror Story), and Theo is whisked away to a mostly empty Las Vegas community on the edge of the desert and an increasingly uncomfortable domestic life.

The thread involving Dad Larry feels a tad jarring (and so much louder than the Barbour family scenes), while director Crowley uses Luke’s nice-guy-comic-persona against you, so that when he goes bad (no spoilers necessary) it seriously stings. Theo also meets Boris Pavlikovsky (Finn Wolfhard from TV’s Stranger Things and the It double-header), who brings much dark warmth and Ukrainian humour to the proceedings. Crowley had intended to cast a young and unknown Russian stage actor in this role, but Finn wowed him with such a convincing accent (and gaunt Goth look) that he was selected instead.

The themes of fate and chance also extend to Theo’s important introduction to antiques dealer Hobie (an unusually restrained Jeffrey Wright in a part turned down by Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson), who serves as a temporary guardian to another victim, Pippa (Aimee Laurence as a kid and Ashleigh Cummings as an adult). Pippa is, naturally, the girl that Theo truly loves and has long been obsessed with, but he nevertheless gets together with Kitsey Barbour (Willa Fitzgerald), Andy’s grown-up sister, when he later reconnects with the family, and she’s the one he temporarily abandons when he’s forced to travel to Amsterdam with the older, criminal Boris (Aneurin Barnard).

Through all of this we keep coming back to Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting The Goldfinch, which Theo saved and secretly kept after the bombing that killed his Mom, and which he’s held onto all these years to constantly remind him, somewhat masochistically, about all that repressed pain.

That shot at synopsising the plot of this 149 minute drama demonstrates how intricate the narrative is, and there’s no doubt that Crowley and Straughan drop the ball more than once, with awkward moments and too much haunted staring. And yet there’s much here to enjoy, from Fegley, Kidman, Wilson and Wolfhard’s performances, to the staging of the terrorist act that sets the story in motion, to the impressive depiction of the completely arbitrary nature of this life.

Purists will rant and rave but, well, they always do.

The Goldfinch (M) is in cinemas now

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