When I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch last year, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I’d loved Tartt’s previous books, The Secret History a particular favourite, and found her prose style and narrative structures appealing. But there seemed to be something else in The Goldfinch, despite its charm. The plot lurched from one drama to another while the characters seemed cold and unbelievable.
The Goldfinch, book and movie, tells the story of Theodore Decker, a 13-year-old boy whose life is torn apart when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing on New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the aftermath of the explosion, Theo takes The Goldfinch, one of the few surviving works of Dutch artist Carel Fabritus with him. The painting becomes a symbol of the loss Theo experienced in the bombing, but its theft weighs heavily on Theo’s consciousness and carries the potential to see him jailed for decades.
Cut adrift from the life he once knew, Theo falls in with struggling antique restorer Hobie before being taken to live in Nevada by his alcoholic deadbeat dad and later falls in with the charismatic Boris, who guides Theo’s life down a darker path. It’s a tale of guilt, loss and emptiness which ponders the nature of life and art.
Blade Runner 2049 director John Crowley’s film adaption is as faithful to the work as one could hope, Peter Straughan’s screenplay cutting plenty of fat from the 784 page novel to fit neatly into a manageable 149 minute runtime.
While the pacing of the film, sharper and punchier than the book, avoids getting mired in some of the tedious plot elements from the novel (the hundreds of pages devoted to Theo and Boris’s descent into drugs, the minutia of gang life in Amsterdam are mercifully left untranslated onto screen) but Straughton runs the risk of taking the Goldfinch too far the other way.
The Goldfinch’s climax, featuring shootouts, raids and gang violence in Amsterdam, is jarring enough in the book, but the film’s treatment of these scenes exasperates the problem. In the space of 30 minutes, Theo goes from nerdy kid wandering around parks with Boris to shooting a man in the head in a multi-storey car park. The necessary brevity of a film like this can leave certain events unexplained and may leave viewers unfamiliar with the source material lightly baffled.
The character of Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) is another problem. A fellow survivor of the bomb blast at the gallery, Pippa is the unrequited love interest of the story. She is a difficult character to like in the novel, more of a concept than a person, someone for Theo to gaze at through a haze of romanticism and self-pity. In the film, her bad qualities are exacerbated as we are introduced to her during a two-minute scene before she is spirited away and without the benefit of Theo’s internal monologue, her importance is barely explained.
But problems with the narrative structure of a story like the Goldfinch are inherent, and in the end there’s only so much directors and scriptwriters do, though they certainly could have done a better job in Pippa’s case. But When it comes to cinematic elements, the Goldfinch does its job perfectly.
The cast are perfect, the actors linking younger and older versions of Theo and Boris are believable as different versions of themselves and a standout performance from Finn Wolfhard makes young Boris a lovable, believable driving force the for the film’s mid-section.
The rest of the cast are solid too, with Luke Wilson as Theo’s deadbeat dad and Sarah Paulson as his vapid, drug-addled girlfriend adding a welcome touch of chaotic danger to the sanctified, artsy New York world where the film begins. Jeffery Wright looks good as Hobie, fitting perfectly into the role of stern yet caring mentor for Theo, though he appears to have fallen victim to the Hollywood epidemic of DarkKnightitis; sandpapering his throat before filming so that all his lines are delivered in a gravelly rasp. What is this supposed to add to a film and why is it so prevalent?
The sets are good, with the vast deserts of Las Vegas a perfect background for Theo’s wanderings with Boris, though perhaps the snow-covered canal banks of Amsterdam could have been utilised a little more. The production values and score are pretty solid and the dialogue largely holds up.
Still, the problems of the narrative rear their head at every opportunity, making this into a film that hardcore Donna Tartt fans may enjoy but the everyman may find a baffling exercise in fuzzy story-telling.
The Goldfinch is now available on Blu Ray and DVD.
Jonny Keen | [rating=3]
Drama | 2019| 2020 DVD & Blu Ray | Dir. John Crowley | Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Anuerin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman