A major movie version of a bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning book must be the stuff of bookshop owners’ dreams, setting the cash register alight. Throw in Nicole Kidman, and you’d expect even the cinema queues to swell.
So excitement was sky-high for this awards-grabbing stab at adapting Donna Tartt’s 800-odd-page brick, The Goldfinch, for the big screen.
The result, which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a 150-minute film that — even at that length — doesn’t manage to do justice to Tartt’s layered novel. This is definitely one of those ‘read the book first’ occasions.
Irish director John Crowley has some form adapting literary novels for screen, having helmed Boy A (based on Jonathan Trigell’s critically acclaimed book) and Brooklyn (based on the novel by Colm Toibin).
Here he teams up with a similarly promising writer: British playwright Peter Straughan, who excelled in wrangling Hilary Mantel’s epic Wolf Hall into the BBC TV show — to great acclaim.
But with Tartt’s tome, Crowley and co bite off more than they can handle. It is perhaps a fool’s errand to attempt to corral this labyrinthian novel’s twisting, turning plot into a feature-length film. A prestige miniseries would have been more realistic.
Audiences entering the story for the first time are likely to get thoroughly lost, frustrated by the film’s gaping plot holes, bizarre time jumps and wafer-thin character sketches.
The film opens in Amsterdam at Christmas, with drug-addicted antique dealer Theo Decker (Baby Driver lead Ansel Elgort). He’s haunted by the death of his mother in an explosion at New York’s Metropolitan Museum when he was 13 (played by Wonderstruck’s Oakes Fegley).
Displaying a stronger cinematic instinct than the filmmakers, perhaps, Tartt opened the book with this devastating blast. Inexplicably, Crowley elects to eternally delay it, repeatedly teasing without ever fully going there. Though, granted, the ashen aftermath is eerily reminiscent of 9/11.
This shocking moment imprints in Theo’s mind the image of a young red-headed girl, Pippa (Aimee Laurence). He was entranced by her just before the explosion, electing not to join his mum in the gift shop.
But don’t get too attached, because the film has next to no interest in her. You’ll be left wondering who she is, where she came from, and where her adult self (played by Australian Ashleigh Cummings, of Puberty Blues fame) winds up. All we’re told is that she loved music but, after the explosion, can no longer play or even really listen to it.
This film is all about Theo. He encounters Pippa’s apparent warden, Welty (Robert Joy) — the movie fails to establish this relationship explicitly — in the rubble. The dying man gifts Theo his ring, uttering his New York address and urging the boy to snatch a small painting from the ruins.
The Goldfinch is a real 17th-century artwork depicting a bird chained to its feeding box, painted by Rembrandt mentee Carel Fabritius and held in the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
If you know your art history, you’ll know that Tartt is mirroring Fabritius’s terrible fate. He was killed by a devastating explosion at a gunpowder factory next door to his studio that also razed most of his painterly endeavours. The Goldfinch miraculously survived.
Welty’s tip leads Theo to the dead man’s business partner, Hobie (Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright). Pippa is convalescing here. Again, don’t expect to find out why or get too comfy. They’ll both be forgotten soon enough as Theo decamps to his posh schoolmate Andy’s (Ryan Foust) Upper East Side townhouse.
Crowley isn’t interested in him either.
We do spend a mite more time with Andy’s mother, played by an immaculately coiffed Kidman in WASP mode.
Looking incredibly glamorous thanks to Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s luscious costume design, Kidman’s game, engaging performance is, like most actors here, hamstrung by far too little screen time and a surreally drawn-out delivery.
Her character speaks in a ridiculously ponderous, sleep-inducing drone that strangles what little she has to work with, and the significant gaps between lines are maddening too.
Honestly, if people spoke properly this film would be a good half-hour shorter. The interminable wait does not add dramatic weight.
Soon enough a heinously miscast Luke Wilson shows up unconvincingly as Theo’s long-estranged deadbeat dad, tacky girlfriend in tow (Sarah Paulson, one of the few people having fun here).
I get that Theo’s meant to be unmoored, but these ‘pop to the loo and you’ll miss them’ vignettes are thoroughly ineffectual at moving the story forward organically.
As dad drags Theo back to Las Vegas to finagle money off him, this section of the film poses more questions than it cares to answer. One character promptly exits in thoroughly perplexing fashion — and it’s not even the first time this has happened.
Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things and It) temporarily takes up the baton as a Ukrainian gangster’s son. Working way better on the page than on screen, this character is, at least, allowed to speak a bit swifter thanks to his drug addiction.
As the attention-deficit plot redirects back to New York and then on to Amsterdam, Elgort is back in the driving seat. We get to check in with older versions of everyone as played by different folks. Except for Kidman, whose leather-neck makeup is presumably intended to improve her shot at a second Oscar.
A frustrating experience, The Goldfinch is somehow both excruciatingly long and rushed. Characters pop up and almost immediately vanish before we grasp their import to the plot, like a particularly frenetic (and less satisfying) game of Whac-A-Mole.
If you know the book, you’ll rue the injustice perpetrated against Tartt’s creations. If you’re new to the story, disorientation awaits. Much like the big bang we never really see, Crowley totally fails to ignite Tartt’s pages.
The Goldfinch is in cinemas from September 26.