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Review: The Goldfinch

Jasmine Onstad reviews John Crowley's adaptation of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner, which could have been a masterpiece but falls short of expectations

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Image Credit: Warner Bros. / Amazon Prime Video

Director: John Crowley
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Finn Wolfhard
Length: 2hr 29min
Rating: 15

The eternal dilemma- whether or not to see the film based on one of your favourite books. On the one hand, you love the story and want to be transported back to that world which captured your imagination so forcefully. On the other, you fear the inevitable disappointment that every literary fan will have experienced at least once in their lives- “it’s just not the same as the book, is it?” I approach this review with the full awareness that no version of this film could have lived up to the private world that Donna Tart helped me create in my head with her 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Having said that, the film’s tepid critical reception and bombing at the US box-office suggest that there is more wrong with it than just not living up to the book. On the tin, The Goldfinchlooked like it could have been a masterpiece. John Crowley of the Oscar nominated Brooklyn was the director, the screenplay by Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Solder Spy) and the cinematographer was Roger Deakins (Sicario, Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049). That’s even before mentioning the impressive cast of Nicole Kidman, Ansel Elgort and Jeffrey Wright. Unfortunately, all the shiny pieces failed to come together to make anything extraordinary. What results is not a bad film, merely one which is not particularly exciting.

Centred around the tragic death of his mother in a museum bombing, the story follows Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley/ Ansel Elgort) as he comes to terms with his grief and tries to find his place in the world. All that is left of his past is the eponymous painting he stole from the gallery where his mother died. Apart from switching around the order of events, the film stays faithful to the original storyline. The chronology of the original story is chopped up, choppy being the operative word, as we flit back and forth from older Theo waiting anxiously in a hotel room in Amsterdam, to all the events that have shaped him. His mother’s death is returned to with the same shots of her walking away into the blurry distance, the repetitiveness detracting from the emotional impact that this event should have had on the viewers.

While the rich world of the book is recreated with beautiful sets and a romantic score, there is no sequence or image that stands out cinematically in my memory. This is a film which has not taken many risks, stayed close to the book and is probably worse off for it. It could have done with a little bit of creative vision, but at the end of the day, anything significantly different or daring would have probably upset the fans of the book. Turning such texts into films is no mean feat, not just because there is such a fine line to thread between pleasing the readers and creating something original, but because some books don’t lend themselves to being recreated visually. Despite the sprawling narrative witch crosses time as well as America, the main location of the story is in the head of Theo himself. There is only so far Elgort’s emotionally muted voiceover can go to recreate that intimacy the reader feels with the character.

What works in the film are the performances, well most of them anyway. Oakes Fegley as Young Theo is an incredible presence and talent and I am excited to see any of his future projects. Nicole Kidman proves yet again that she’s a class act in her performance of the stately yet loving New York art collector who takes Theo in after the bombing. But who expected anything less from Kidman? Jeffrey Wright is lovable as cuddly Hobie, the antique restorer who is Theo’s only true male role model. The only real sore thumb is Finn Wolfhard’s turn as Boris. I do not envy the youngStanger Things actor in the slightest, this is probably one of the most ridiculous and outlandish characters that he will ever have to play. How does one even approach a Ukrainian/ Australian/ Canadian/ Polish accent? Unfortunately, his manic portrayal struck a false note.

The result is a film that could have been three separate films: a tragic drama about a young boy’s life torn apart by terrorism, an uplifting and wacky coming of age story in the desert and equally a thrilling heist movie depicting the underground art dealing world. The fact that it feels slightly disjointed is not necessarily a problem with the filmmaking, but a fact of the particularities of the book. Imagine adapting Harry Potter for the screen but without any of the visually exciting magic spells, grand locations or strange creatures to capture the imagination. The result would be a young orphan living in the normal world in slightly improbable circumstances. In Harry Potter, as soon as you introduce the idea of magic wands and goblins and Dark Lords, nothing seems impossible. The magic of the Goldfinch isn’t manifested in spells or strange creatures but Donna Tartt’s enchanting writing. When the story is starkly presented on the silver screen, it becomes much harder to accept the improbable aspects of the narrative and go along for the ride.

Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen York.

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