2019, R, 149 min. Directed by John Crowley. Starring Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Hailey Wist, Finn Wolfhard, Jeffrey Wright, Aneurin Barnard, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Oakes Fegley, Ashleigh Cummings, Denis O'Hare, Aimee Laurence.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Sept. 20, 2019
Film adaptations of novels can be quite complicated. Teasing out the essence and often nuanced themes of a story cinematically is often bogged down by a need of the screenwriters to cram as much of the novel into the film as possible. It's an effort to satisfy fans of the original text while also orientating unfamiliar newcomers. And complications abound in John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch, an epic 800-page novel of grief and loss, art and redemption, told in Tartt’s gorgeous language and signature style. Yet while the best adaptations are able to distill and parlay the written word into a film that captures the soul of a story (L.A. Confidential comes to mind, as does, begrudgingly, Fight Club), Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan fall wildly short of conveying any of the nuance and gravitas of the source material.
Tartt’s tale is the trials of Theo Decker, who lost his mother in the bombing of an art gallery, an event that sends him thrown about, oscillating between New York City high society, forays into the desolate and vacant subdivisions of Las Vegas, mentoring under an art forgery and furniture restoration specialist, and shady deals in Amsterdam parking garages. The title refers to a painting by 17th century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, one that young Theo steals away after he survives the bombing and a subsequent token of many things: his loss, his feelings of entrapment, his errant desire to keep something pure in the world, his secrets, but primarily his mother. It was one of her favorite paintings. So let’s start here, with the mother, Audrey (Wist). She is seen for a scant five minutes in the film (and not until the end), in that eye-rolling, “Oh, that’s what it’s all about!” scene that is the tradition of Oscar bait since time immemorial. Which is unfortunate, because, while only in the novel for a short time, Audrey was a vibrant and engaging woman, and to relegate her as a fleeting spectre the viewer never gets to know and her relationship to Theo is the film’s biggest flaw. No, wait, scratch that: The film’s biggest flaw is casting Ansel Elgort as the adult Theo (Oakes Fegley fares much better as the young version). Elgort may be a pretty face to some, but he has the dramatic range of a BB gun and is in no way prepared to tackle the intricacies of a character going through such upheaval. Jeffrey Wright plays Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, the kind furniture restorer who takes Theo under his wing. That Stranger Things kid (Finn Wolfhard) isn’t horrible as Theo’s friend, a Ukrainian named Boris who befriends Theo in Las Vegas. It is the duo’s alcohol- and drug-fueled ennui that comprise the most compelling portions of the film. It doesn’t hurt to have the esteemed Roger Deakins as the cinematographer, as he is unable to frame a bad shot (if he had an Instagram account, his photos of what he was eating for breakfast would trump your selfies at Machu Picchu any day).
But despite Deakins’ touch, The Goldfinch is a haphazard attempt at taking an award-winning novel and spinning it into a grab for the gold ring (or statue). Tartt’s brilliant 1992 debut The Secret History was optioned for film so many times, and stalled so many times over two decades, that the author bought the rights back to make sure no one could fuck up her work. Alas, that is not the case here. An enthralling story on the page, this adaptation fails to capture what good adaptations can: the heart and spirit of a story told in another medium.
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The Goldfinch, John Crowley, Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Hailey Wist, Finn Wolfhard, Jeffrey Wright, Aneurin Barnard, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Oakes Fegley, Ashleigh Cummings, Denis O'Hare, Aimee Laurence