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Is Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-wining novel The Goldfinch unadaptable? Is it possible to condense 784 globetrotting pages of romance, terrorism, grief, drug addiction and art world espionage into a coherent and dramatically satisfying movie? After 149 minutes of Brooklyn director John Crowley’s much-anticipated, and much-feared, attempt, the answer appears to be … shrug emoji?
Because it’s neither a rousing success nor an embarrassing failure, falling somewhere in between, closer to admirable attempt. Most importantly, it’s nowhere near the ungainly mess some had expected, its many, many moving parts stitched together with an elegant hand and unlike some weighty adaptations, there’s a motivation behind it that seems to stretch further than “because we should?” While it shifts tone, genre and location, the focus remains on Theo (Oakes Fegley and then Ansel Elgort), whose mother dies in a terrorist attack when he’s 13 and whose life is forever wounded as a result. His father absent, Theo is sent to temporarily live with the family of a schoolfriend and he grows close to the matriarch Samantha (Nicole Kidman), a chilly woman who bonds with him over their mutual love of art. When his father Larry (Luke Wilson) re-emerges, Theo is sent to live with him, and his uncaring girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) and so begins a journey from carer to carer and place to place as Theo struggles to figure out who he is and where he belongs.
There’s a sturdy engine motoring us through the strong opening scenes, the work of a storyteller in confident control of his narrative but once Wilson and Paulson barrel into view, playing cartoonish and arguably classist caricatures, we’re immediately taken out of the film. It’s just two well-known stars doing a rather tiresome bit and their performances are distracting and clash against the smooth work done by both Kidman and an impressive Fegley up until that point. They’re not painted with quite such grotesque strokes as say Margo Martindale in Million Dollar Baby but there’s a similar snobbishness in how the film, and perhaps Tartt, seems to view those who don’t live on the Upper East Side and who don’t frequent galleries.
Crowley’s film is one of vignettes, some of which possess more power than others, and it’s to his credit that despite the fractured nature of the story, we’re compelled to know where he’s taking us and what will happen to Theo, an often unknowable protagonist. Some might have sniffed at the casting of Elgort, who received similar head scratches when he was cast as Tony in Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming adaptation of West Side Story, but he’s surprisingly convincing here, quietly anchoring an uneven film with poise. There’s also reliably strong character work from Jeffrey Wright as one of the many adult figures he encounters along the way while as mentioned, it’s yet another strong performance from an on-a-roll Kidman.
It’s a handsomely made adaptation that might lack a particularly distinctive style other than studio prestige, but it shows how Crowley has progressed as a film-maker since Brooklyn, a film I found to be rather prosaic. He proves himself to be a safe hand for the most part as screenwriter Peter Straughan shows himself to be mostly adept at bringing a dense novel to the screen. But as the film enters its third act, the emotional centre never really materialises, a romantic connection fizzles out and a silly plot contrivance as well as an uninvolving lurch into thriller theatrics dampens our interest and investment. The propulsion that got us here doesn’t really lead to a gratifying payoff, like taking a long road trip that reaches a dead end, and as the film starts to wrap up, there’s not enough of a throughline to justify both the film’s mammoth length and its grand sense of self.
The Goldfinch resembles one of the many pieces of art that Theo admires during the film: it’s exquisite to look at but impossible to touch.
Source: The Guardian
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