There was every reason to be excited about the first big screen adaptation of a Donna Tartt novel, especially that of her immersive 2013 Pultizer Prize-winning The Goldfinch. It’s a Dickensian coming-of-age epic that is a cinematic read to begin with, charting the story of a young boy, Theo, who survives a terrorist bombing in an art museum where his mother dies. The tragedy forever alters the course of his life and leads him to carry a deep secret, linked to the eponymous 17th century painting by Rembrandt’s protégé Carel Fabritius, the work of art he was standing in front of when the bomb went off. The casting of seasoned thesps Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Wright was comforting, and the behind-the-camera line-up further ramped up excitement levels, as the combined talents of director John Crowley (who previously brought Colm Tóibin’s novel Brooklyn to the screen), cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins and Peter Staughan, the screenwriter behind the fantastic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, also promised much. Even the trailer got it spot-on by cannily using one of the best songs of the last ten years, The National’s ‘Terrible Love’, to tantalizingly tease a stirring, emotionally-enthralling drama.
So, what in the name of the Dutch Golden Age went wrong?
Because something has. All the ingredients are there and the sauce just doesn’t take, leaving this adaptation feeling like less than the sum of its parts. It’s tempting to suggest that sky-high expectations could be to blame, but even those unfamiliar with the novel will no doubt feel let-down by The Goldfinch. To be clear: it’s a valiant attempt, well shot and never unwatchable. But somehow it ends up feeling emotionally malnourished, a sprawling drama that never builds to anything particularly memorable. It’s frustrating as there are elements here that hint at a better film; yet something vital has been lost in the transition from page to screen, namely the thought-provoking layers that made the book such an engrossing examination of the intersection where grief, remembrance and obsession collide. On screen, the emotional impact falls flat and thematic reflection never materialises.
It could be due to the miscast Ansel Elgort, who can’t make heads or tails of the role of Theo and looks like an awkward teen playing dress-up in adults clothing; an adult cast who are outshone at every turn by the actors playing their younger counterparts (Oakes Fegley easily out-acts Elgort, and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard nails the role of younger Boris, a Ukranian scamp who sees in Theo a kindred lost spirit, while the adult version played by Aneurin Barnard is awful); the botched pacing that culminates in a rushed and anticlimactic resolution. All these elements contribute to sinking The Goldfinch. Ultimately though, there’s a case to be made that the novel needed a six-part miniseries rather than an overly busy feature length film. The 149-minute runtime feels both interminable and yet insufficient to properly do justice to the epic story, whose two timelines, generous digressions and pivoting pacing could have worked better in a different format.
Let’s just hope that this adaptation halts any ideas regarding Tartt’s other two novels, as it’s clear both The Secret History and The Little Friend deserve to be left well alone after this noble misfire.
The Goldfinch | Directed by John Crowley (US, 2019), with Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright. Starts Sep 26.
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