THE GOLDFINCH. Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman. Directed by John Crowley. 149 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, drug use, violence and coarse language).
Upon its release in 2013, Donna Tartt’s novel ‘The Goldfinch’ was a global bestseller, eventually receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Though I noticed its sparse but eye-catching cover on a bookshelf in my home for years, I only read it quite recently and found it absorbing but ultimately quite frustrating. His life derailed after the death of his mother, the protagonist Theo lives in a state of arrested development, barely progressing as a character beyond his growing tolerance for drugs and alcohol as he grows up across its epic near-800-page length. Tartt’s writing was undeniably compelling and I made short work of the book, however I was pulled along by the promise of some grand conclusion that never materialised. If you for whatever reason believed that an adaptation of this sprawling, unsatisfying story would be anything but, then I must be the bearer of bad news. ‘The Goldfinch’ is undeniably well-crafted and -acted, but, much like the painting at its heart, it is a thing of beauty without a beating heart.
The book and film are named for a painting by the painter Fabritius, a promising student of the Dutch master Rembrandt who was survived by only about a dozen of his works when he was killed by a factory explosion in 1654. 13-year-old Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley, very good) comes across the titular work while visiting a New York museum with his mother (Hailey Wist). After his mother is tragically killed by a terror attack at the museum, Theo staggers away from the aftermath clutching two things: a ring given to him by a dying man, and ‘The Goldfinch’.
What follows in Peter Straughan’s faithfully adapted screenplay is a strange odyssey of sorts, as Theo first goes to live with the wealthy family of his schoolmate Andy (Ryan Foust), under the cool gaze of Andy’s aloof but compassionate mother Samantha (Nicole Kidman, every inch the affluent host). The ring entrusted into his possession leads Theo to an antique dealership now run by gruff but kind furniture restorer James “Hobie” Hobart (Jeffrey Wright), whose business partner Welton Blackwell (Robert Joy) was the old man killed alongside Theo’s mother in the attack. Hobie now cares for Blackwell’s niece Pippa (Aimee Laurence), a young girl with flaming red hair who caught Theo’s eye just before the explosion. Though Theo feels inexorably drawn to Pippa and has been taken under Hobie’s wing, not even Samantha can stand in the way of Theo’s absentee father (Luke Wilson, well cast as a shaggy ne’er-do-well) and his girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) whisking him off to Las Vegas.
It’s in Vegas that the wheels of the story really start to spin in place, as Theo and a new friend, Russian ex-pat and all-round terrible influence Boris (Finn Wolfhard, impressive), bereft of responsible adult supervision and productive pastimes in the Nevada desert, start experimenting with drugs and alcohol. While a mature Theo (now played by Ansel Elgort, arguably on career best form) eventually ends up back in New York working alongside Hobie in the antiques trade, Boris’ (now Aneurin Barnard) descent into a life of crime soon comes to affect them both, a development that has more to do with ‘The Goldfinch’ than first meets the eye.
Shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, ‘The Goldfinch’ is a generously budgeted adaptation and it looks it. From the way that Deakins captures remarkable soft details in the contrast between light and shadows, to its handsome New York setting, the film looks terrific. The costuming by Kasia Walicka-Maimone is also exceptional, convincingly dressing every actor to match both the character and the performance. There’s nothing obviously wrong with the filmmaking, yet overall ‘The Goldfinch’ feels lifeless and cold, its drama as untethered and listless as its protagonist.
It’s worth noting that Irish director John Crowley previously found great success in adapting a renowned literary work with 2015’s ‘Brooklyn’, based on the Colm Tóibín novel of the same name. This goes some way to suggesting that, like with any work of art, there’s something arcane and fleeting in the making of a good film. Here, despite the safety net of its beloved source material, a talented cast and crew, and Warner Brothers’ deep pockets, Crowley just can’t convince this goldfinch to take flight.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 26.