Director John Crowley’s last film was the highly-praised Brooklyn. His follow-up, The Goldfinch, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel by Donna Tartt. It’s an ambitious, sprawling story about a famous Dutch painting, a young survivor of a terrorist bombing, and his struggles following the incident as he grows to adulthood.
British playwright Peter Straughan was tasked with taking the 800-page tome and translating it to screen. Somewhere along the way, it went horribly wrong.
Crowley once again surrounds his film with some impressive talent, including Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright, and Luke Wilson. The protagonist Theo is played at two ages – Ansel Elgort as the older iteration, Oakes Fegley as the younger. His romantic obsession is a girl named Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings and Aimee Laurence), while his friend Boris (Aneurin Barnard and Finn Wolfhard) has an ambivalent effect on both young and older Theo.
As shown on the big screen, the story is a convoluted mess of disparate elements, from a terrorist attack through to plodding coming-of-age moments. Entire swaths of action are either described via dry dialogue or inelegantly presented, with interminable flashbacks that end up amounting to a vast nothingness. There’s talk of antiques, there are scenes of drug abuse, and even moments where young love gets experienced with all its common awkwardness. It’s one of those nests where all kinds of material gets accumulated – bits of string, a straw, some fluff – all to try and make some kind of regular, comfortable structure. This works in principle, but here we’ve got nothing but a pile of refuse and a shape that can barely hold itself together.
In fact, the entire film feels like an exercise in almost malicious repetition, with even the most grand of surprises telegraphed so clearly you can practically see the wires. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is acceptable, but we’ve come to expect far more from the master. He shoots Kidman with particular elegance, but the rest is pretty run of the mill.
The dialogue is dull, the plotlines are scattershot and often ridiculous, and any sense of tension or scope is undercut throughout by seemingly endless asides and missteps. The title refers to a 17th Century Dutch painting by Carel Fabritius of a bird chained, unable to escape, and there’s no better metaphor for experiencing this interminable film.
The Goldfinch is a leaden, poorly realized, and needlessly convoluted representation of a novel that itself seems like it could use some concision. A waste of a decent cast, this misfire is so grand that it might actually find fans to revel in its campy nonsense. Brief moments that almost point to success are quickly undercut, and we’re left with a bird that simply cannot fly, plummeting as its wings flap until it inelegantly lands in a heap.