Friday, September 27, 2019

The Goldfinch – protracted, poorly-plotted adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel with some fine performances (in UK and Irish cinemas from 27 September)

Young Theo survives an explosion at a New York art museum. Seemingly orphaned, Theo stays with well-to-do family friends – who thankfully switch from being downright begrudging to very loving – until his birth father shows up and whisks him off to the outer reaches of Las Vegas. Meanwhile, we see older Theo back in New York, selling antiques, finding comfort by hugging a souvenir that he picked up at the museum in the chaos following the explosion, forging an engagement with a childhood friend, recovering stolen property, and failing to come to terms with the fakery which surrounds nearly every aspect of his life.

Oakes Fegley (who played Samaritan’s human avatar in Person of Interest) plays young, Theo, a nerdy fellow with a maternally-inspired interest in fine art. Fegley’s acting in The Goldfinch is at its strongest when verbally sparring with a school-friends (played by Ryan Foust and Finn Wolfhard). Theo’s rarefied lifestyle in New York is interrupted by the arrival of loud-mouthed, vice-laden father Larry (Luke Wilson) and his rather wonderfully louche girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Ansel Elgort elegantly picks up the character of Theo eight years later, with a number of mirrored mannerisms that make the transformation very easy to swallow.

Inside this film there’s a well-told story struggling to get out. It’s hard to believe that Donna Tartt’s source material could inspire such insipid dialogue. In one scene, an older friend Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) questions young Theo like a post-screening interview to reveal his family’s broken backstory. In another, his one-time foster mother (whose deep grief is brilliantly captured by Nicole Kidman) asks him “You must tell me what you’re doing with your life?”. That might work in a novel, but for a film it’s a definite case of ‘tell not show’ being clumsily written over The Goldfinch in bright red neon letters.

Golden hour light is complemented by a palette of duck egg blue and some rich greens. The Goldfinch is strangely filmed with a very televisual aspect ratio which reduces the normal cinematic anamorphic widescreen wonder. Saying that, Roger Deakins produces some great cinematography, particularly with his capture of night scenes. If you take shelter on a wet afternoon and invest in this film, you may leave the screen wondering whether Theo’s yellow satchel was fashioned from a raincoat left over from IT Chapter One!

A huge MacGuffin in introduced when his Ukrainian buddy Boris from Las Vegas (who first introduced him to substance abuse) turns up eight years later by complete chance in a New York bar he’s visiting to score some drugs. Theo admits he studied Conversational Russian at college, yet utters nyet a word to his Russian-speaking friend.

Badly braided twin timelines are burdened with a storytelling chronology that feels like someone laid it out in a sensible order before sneezing and jumbling up the sequence. Coming in at a very indulgent two and a half hours long – that’s three hours, if you turn up in time for the adverts – a late scene with Theo being dragged through the snow reminded me of 2016’s unbearably long The Revenant. The Goldfinch becomes a slog, long before the end, and I can forgive the other people heard talking during the screening given the on-screen baloney.

A story based around the survival of the titular piece of art by Rembrandt’s pupil Carel Fabritius, which may have been one of his few works to escape a 1654 explosion, should surely be as delicate as the bird depicted? Chained down, the finch can’t escape, though the characters in this film have a much greater freedom, perhaps only shackled to parental pursuits and failings. The idea of art being immortal and human much more limited is repeated throughout, but totally ignores the legacy of human actions.

Between the constant flicking back and forth in time, and the poor plot exposition, it feels like the director John Crowley has built a car with a manual gearbox and no clutch, crunching his way up and down the gears to move the story forward. Not even the appearance – and unexplained disappearance – of a cute dog can save the audience from the feeling that Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning story deserved a better treatment.

The Goldfinch is released in UK and Irish cinemas (including Queen’s Film Theatre and Movie House Cinemas) on Friday 27 September. Also out this week, and more strongly recommended, Ready or Not and The Last Tree.

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