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The film adaptation of The Goldfinch is a rather dull affair

directed by John Crowley

John Crowley and Peter Straughan are uncharacteristically disappointing in their adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

With their earlier films, director John Crowley and writer Peter Straughan proved that they could pick up a novel, rummage around its innards, pull out the beating heart of the story and translate it into something stunningly cinematic.

In his Brooklyn, Crowley accentuated the grand historical sweep of Colm Tóibín’s minor masterpiece. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Straughan transformed John le Carré’s most beloved thriller into a bit of moody Cold War melancholy.

In adapting The Goldfinch, however, the pair have done no pruning or peeling. They’ve merely hurled Donna Tartt’s brick-sized novel at the screen, hoping that something might stick.

The result is a sedate, limping, barely propelled film. It’s a rather dull affair, punctuated with bursts of inspiration that hint at what might have been.

The story’s inciting incident sees young Theo Decker (played by Oakes Fegley and, later, Ansel Elgort) survive a terror bombing at the Met in New York. In the immediate chaos, he steals a priceless 17th century painting – an object that will become a secret, consuming obsession.

In the novel, this is a shocking introduction. In the film, it is stretched out over the two-hour runtime and robbed of any urgency. And furthermore, that painting disappears for long stretches. By the time we reach an 11th-hour black-market stick-up, we’ve almost forgotten that it existed at all.

There is also a chasm between the film’s aspirations and what ends up on screen. This is supposed to be a post-9/11 meditation on the value of humanity amid atrocity, yet it cannot grasp anything resembling humanity. Above all, it positively creaks with talent – Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson – yet each of them can be engrossing in one scene and blank in another. They appear, as one character exclaims, “almost exactly like real people”.

The fault, I suspect, lies with Tartt’s novel, which, Pulitzer aside, wasn’t very good to begin with. Still, Straughan and Crowley ought to have excised its stunted, mock-Dickensian fairy-tale style and nailed down its more resonant features. There’s a good story somewhere in those 700-odd pages – if only they’d found it.



Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.