2 Oct 2019

Review - The Goldfinch

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 2 October 2019

The Goldfinch is based on an acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt of the same name, which stars Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman.

The track-record of films based on generally accepted “great novels” is patchy at best.  It’s become a cliché that while any amount of great movies have come from average novels – The Godfather and Jaws leap unbidden to mind – the reverse is very rarely true.  

Classic novels seldom travel, partly because the secret of their success is their great writing.

Take the skill of author Donna Tartt out of the adaptation of her prize-winning The Goldfinch and you’re left with the bald plot and characters. 

And, in the case of this plot and these characters, they need some help along their way.

Understandably, this production wants to favour its big star – teen favourite Ansel Elgort, last seen in Baby Driver – over the 12-year-old actor playing the young Theo Decker.

So to maximize Ansel’s screentime, the story travels backwards and forwards in time from one crucial event.

During a visit to an art gallery with Theo’s beloved mother, she wanders off briefly while Theo lingers to look at a painting of a goldfinch, her favourite. 

Then a bomb goes off in the next room, killing several people, including his mother.

So one story goes forward from there. Theo’s deadbeat father vanishes and Theo is fostered by a nice, upper middle-class family led by matriarch Nicole Kidman. 

And his two prized possessions after the explosion are a tightly wrapped parcel, and a ring with two names engraved on it.

Meanwhile the story looking backwards attempts to discover precisely what happened on the day of the explosion. 

Theo compulsively blames himself for his mother’s death. If it wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t have been at the gallery. He stayed behind to look at The Goldfinch with an attractive little red-headed girl. Maybe if he’d left with his mother… things might’ve been different.

So one story reaches into the future – a narrative that travels to Las Vegas, Amsterdam and back to New York before it’s finished, and includes Russian emigres, crooked and/or violent parents, drugs and even car-chases.

And the other keeps scratching at the wound of, essentially, one minute in the past.

Included in that minute are the red-headed girl and her soon-to-be late father, Mr Blackwell. He runs an antique shop with his partner Hobie Hobart, played by Jeffrey Wright.

A novel like The Goldfinch is essentially a literary one – long, a bit rambling and discursive, beautifully written. You dip into it every night, and take your time getting from one set-piece to another.

That’s not how a movie works though, and as this Goldfinch trudges through its 140-odd minutes, it’s all too easy to spot the holes in the plot when you fall into them.

There’s really only one way to turn a great big novel into a movie, and that’s throw out everything that doesn’t fit. 

But fans of a well-loved book like The Goldfinch will be furious if you miss out their favourite scenes, even if they unfairly blame you when the end-result is unwieldy.

Director John Crowley, writer Peter Straughan and particularly the great cinematographer Roger Deakins do their best with Donna Tartt’s novel, but they’ve probably been too loyal to the original material. 

Alfred Hitchcock famously read his novels once, then forgot about them and started again. He was hated by the novelists, but audiences loved him.

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