There’s a scene in The Goldfinch where Hobie, a dealer and restorer of antique furniture, teaches protagonist Theo how to distinguish between a true antique and a fake. Fake antiques, he says, are dead objects. Only the real ones have the ‘glow’ about them that comes with decades and centuries of being handled and used: “the marks of life.” It’s a sweet little scene – and also a succinct explanation of why John Crowley’s film (based on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel) doesn’t work.
Admittedly, there’s plenty to admire in the craftsmanship. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins bathes every scene in a painterly light, finding beauty in luxury New York penthouses and dilapidated Vegas suburbs alike, and his shots are complemented by a wonderful score from Trevor Gureckis. There are some admirable performances, too; Oakes Fegley is impressive as Theo, a young boy adrift after an unthinkable tragedy, while Jeffrey Wright and Nicole Kidman do fine work as the replacement parental figures in his life.
But the parts never gel into a cohesive whole. Peter Straughan’s screenplay jumbles the order of events, turning a modern Dickensian epic into a series of disjointed episodes. Theo’s mother, whom the painting of the title comes to represent in Theo’s mind, feels like an afterthought in the story. The third act – a sudden burst of gritty violence in the picaresque book – is robbed of all tension and momentum.
The Goldfinch is a story about our relationship with objects and art; how they can give our lives meaning, and how they can consume us. In adapting it for the screen, Crowley seems to have viewed the novel through the same adoring eyes with which Theo gazes upon the painting. But in the process, he has robbed the story of all its marks of life.
CAST: Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort, Finn Wolfhard, Aneurin Barnard, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson
DIRECTOR: John Crowley
WRITERS: Peter Straughan (screenplay), Donna Tartt (novel)
SYNOPSIS: A boy in New York is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.