Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel touched millions. Now, in Hollywood's hands, the story of a broken young boy coming to terms with the death of his mother is painfully one note, and sort of pointless.
Every year, at least one film has to crumble under the weight of expectation, failing to live up to the hype. More often than not, these pictures have a previous source material strong enough to give die-hard fans a reason to get hungry for it: a book, maybe a video game, or a fawned over original film that’s about to get tarnished by an unnecessary remake.
It makes the case of The Goldfinch all the more stranger, a film that has all of the standalone components to make a great movie but ultimately falls flat. It started, in this case, with a book: Donna Tartt’s novel about a boy named Theo who lost his mother in a terrorist attack, and the precious relic of a painting he takes with him through his tumultuous adult years, was labelled “rich and impressive” and “masterful” by critics when it was first published. Others had a different view – some criticised its cliches and the one dimensional nature of its characters. Needless to say it didn’t matter: Donna Tartt took home the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. But if it wasn’t an across-the-board critical success, at least the readers loved it. It spent months in the bestsellers lists, and became the kind of book you’d find everybody digging into on their summer holidays.
This explains why a film version was green-lit some two years after it was released, with John Crowley, the Irish director behind the decadent and sweet Brooklyn, attached to direct. Around him gathered a cast of some of the most in-demand stars of today: Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort would play the lead role, while Nicole Kidman would be Theo’s upper class carer in the aftermath of the disaster. Sarah Paulson is also on board as his drunkard stepmother, while Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard would slip into the shoes of the younger version of his plucky Russian best friend, Boris. The screenwriter behind the brooding Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the 2014 musical romp Frank, Peter Straughan, would be on scripting duties.
There are enough shiny statuettes between them to justify the anticipation that led The Goldfinch into its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and yet the film itself fails to fly. The chained-down bird in the painting that inspired its title becomes a painfully accurate analogy.
Because, despite having two-and-a-half hours to condense 700+ pages of meaty material into, The Goldfinch’s script struggles to go anywhere, biding its time waiting for a source of cinematic electricity that never arrives. It plods along, stretching its slight narrative structure out over two hours before the last 30 minutes kick things into gear: it’s another sign that being unwaveringly faithful to a book you might spend months reading makes for a fairly uneventful night at the movies. It’s unambitious at best and nonsensical when it runs out of steam. Some of the brief moments of action here are so incongruous, so far-fetched, it would be silly to spoil them, but it’s like standing in a locked room full of perfectly intelligent people as it starts to go up in flames – each person expecting another to solve the problem.
It’s the stilted pace that causes many of its actors – many Oscar nominees, if not winners – to stall. While Ansel Elgort delivers a soft-edged and quiet performance as Theo, faithful to his character, most of the people around him are strangely one note. How do you get a subpar performance out of the iconic Nicole Kidman, whose paunchy dialogue as the film’s astute matriarch comes off less like “posh mum” and more like “serial killer”? The only person giving it any real welly is the ever reliable Sarah Paulson, whose pantomime-like performance as the evil stepmother is perhaps the film’s most energising quality.
It’s straightforward in a way that worked for Brooklyn, a modest and blushing film about young love that wins you over despite its minor flaws. But it doesn’t work here, when the story is supposedly so vast, spanning continents and decades but doing little to win you over on the journey to its disappointing destination. It’s well lacquered and looks good at least: the legendary Roger Deakins’ cinematography captures both the chill of a New York winter and the harsh glare of a barren Vegas sunlight, but strong visuals can’t counteract the fact that The Goldfinch, with all of its wonderful actors and filmmakers capable of something excellent, loses its soul and purpose somewhere along the way.
The Goldfinch isn’t bad enough to anger anybody, but it’s lacking enough love, intellect and intent to disappoint those who waited eagerly to see what John Crowley would do with this celebrated book. Who’s fault is it that this doesn’t work? Well, by the time the credits roll you’re not sure if it matters anymore. Or if you even care.
The Goldfinch premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It hits UK cinemas on 27th September.