Prescient of its awful box-office opening and the swarm of terrible reviews, I went to see one of my most anticipated films of the year, The Goldfinch, with plenty of trepidation. Adapted for the screen from one of my favourite books – Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bildungsroman of the same name – by director John Crowley (Brooklyn), The Goldfinch follows the story of Theo, who steals a priceless painting, Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, during a bombing that killed his mother. After being taken in by his friend’s family, the Barbours, he is then reunited with his deadbeat father in Las Vegas. Here, he makes friends with oddball Boris, before further tragedy forces him to return to New York where he grows up selling forged antiques and spiralling into drug addiction. I can, with some relief, say that the film isn’t a complete disaster, but in its staid effort to adhere strictly to the source text, Crowley dampens the magic of Tartt’s tale.
The film’s biggest let down is its awful editing. I cannot stress this enough – the editing in this film is terrible. Scenes don’t flow smoothly at all; it all seems very haphazardly jumbled together, troglodytic and clumsy like the false antiques clobbered together by Theo in his adult life. A good book-to-film adaptation necessitates more than just selecting some important scenes from the book. The explosion that kills Theo’s mother which begins the tale is butchered into uneven segments and then played in stilted flashbacks; chopping up the important scene like Frankenstein’s monster then crudely sewing segments together was a terrible decision. Because of this, the beginning of the film will understandably be confusing for those who haven’t read the book, and the opening scenes are rushed and alienating.
For Theo, the dust never settles. The after-effects of the explosion taunt him throughout life; the encroaching dust of the Las Vegas desert, the crushed pills he puts up his nose, the flurry of snow in Amsterdam. Though, thankfully, the film looks glorious. Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography is a triumph and so closely enmeshed with the narrative’s most salient aspects. The arid and barren landscape of Las Vegas, deftly daubed with ashy ochre tones, mimics the colours of the titular painting, reflecting Vegas as a zone in which Theo is chained and cannot break free from his shackles. One can’t help but think that Fabritius, with his skilful colour harmonies, would have been an excellent cinematographer himself.
Crowley also manages to convincingly show how Theo is addicted to his trauma, latching himself on to Pippa, who also lost a loved one in the explosion, when their co-dependence would inevitably destroy them both. As the camera pans to her copy of The Wizard of Oz, it is Crowley’s rather crude way of articulating: there’s no place like home, and here, with this girl, is where you think you belong. And yet, trauma finds him; he reunites with his temporary guardian Mrs Barbour (Nicole Kidman) after the death of her son, where she has a manic sheen of trauma glinting behind her eyes, not unlike Fabritius’ chained goldfinch. However, the bizarre decision made to render Mrs Barbour as a sort of replacement mother figure, one of the biggest points of departure from Tartt’s story, is misguided. This happens as the film begins to bloat unbearably at the two-hour mark, where you begin to forget what the significance of the painting is even meant to be. In the book, the painting is constantly on Theo’s mind, and in the film, Crowley represents this with a few scenes of Theo hugging it on the floor; which is clumsy and doesn’t seem to work well at all.
Although Oakes Fegley plays young Theo well, there’s something about his presence that still feels like a miscast; he looks too young to be a convincing 13-year-old, so subsequent scenes of smoking and drug-taking are extremely jarring. There has also been widespread mockery of Finn Wolfhard’s Russian accent; but, if my memory serves me well from the book, he’s meant to have a weird, hybrid, unplaceable accent, as he’s from so many different places. Boris is manic and strange, and I understand why this may have been alienating to audiences who hadn’t read the book. I actually think Wolfhard plays the role well, perfecting Boris’ creepy-yet-sweet awkwardness. Though the book is a little more liberal with its homoerotic undertones, Boris and Theo do share various sweetly tactile moments together, brushing fingertips together, sharing *that* kiss, a gorgeous forehead touch at the end. Aneurin Barnard as an adult Boris is almost forgettable because I was so distracted by his horrible false teeth, a weird hybrid between that FaceApp effect and Ross Geller’s whitening disaster in Friends. He also looks like he’s in his mid-thirties, years older than co-star Ansel Elgort, and everything about his presence onscreen seems farcical. Luke Wilson fades as Theo’s father, yet the casting of Sarah Paulson as Xandra was a stroke of genius.
Ansel Elgort, as adult Theo, possesses a certain type of smarmy hotness that actually works well as the jaded, trauma-ridden faux-beta-male he’s matured in to – but the characterisation drops too often into the unlikeable, making it difficult to root for him. Yet, the scene where he discovers Boris’ machinations and the presence of an ersatz painting that he has been cradling for years is heart-wrenchingly played out. The loss of the painting is like losing his mother all over again; it’s only in this tiny moment of the film’s 2h 30 run time that the connection between Theo and the painting makes tangible sense. Jeffrey Wright as Hobie often leans into the peculiar as he speaks in a husky, Voldemort-esque tone, yet the most touching moment of the film comes from his impassioned speech to Theo about the importance of the painting. “Maybe it’s ignoble to care so much about objects,” he tells Theo, and yet – still – we must “pull them from the fire.” Hobie’s metaphorical rescuing of Theo and his disappointment at Theo’s carelessness is well handled, as is the painting’s subsequent retrieval. As Boris tenderly informs Theo that “the bird is back in the world,” our protagonist is finally unshackled, free. The ending, where Theo goes to right his wrongs and reclaim the painting and all it signifies – in Amsterdam, where its painter was born – works.
The main reason that this film just about succeeds isn’t because of those who made it – it’s because of Donna Tartt, and the story she gave them. With so much potential there, though, various aspects, from editing to screenplay, fell short. There’s a certain guilty comfort in pretentiousness when it’s there on the written page to read, alone, savouring flowery prose and big ideas. But, when Tartt’s lofty musings are translated onto the big screen, it crumbles. When Theo tells the audience that “everything is before and after – the middle is the painting,” we can only despair that Crowley didn’t think to insert similar structural attention to his film.
Words by Steph Green