Ansel Elgort and Ashleigh Cummings play the older Theo and Pippa (Nicole Rivelli/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Ansel Elgort and Ashleigh Cummings play the older Theo and Pippa (Nicole Rivelli/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Is expensive new movie really a ‘disaster’?

Maybe you've seen the headlines about The Goldfinch coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival.

"Disaster!" some branded John Crowley's (Brooklyn) two-and-a-half-hour epic starring Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright and Finn Wolfhard.

Well, it's not a disaster, but it is a flat and lumbering albeit beautifully filmed drama that bores more than it entertains.

Adapted from Donna Tartt's hefty 2013 book, the source material is a rich, morally complex story with a traumatised and deeply flawed character at the centre.

The movie? Not so much.

In this misguided transition to screen, it loses much of that special sauce which won Tartt's book the Pulitzer.

The Goldfinch is adapted from Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer-winning novel (Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
The Goldfinch is adapted from Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer-winning novel (Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Theo (Oakes Fegley) is only 13 years old when he and his mother are bombed during an attack on the Met museum. His mother dies but Theo survives the blast. In the smoky melee, Theo takes an artwork, a small, centuries-old painting of a delicate goldfinch by a Dutchman.

The painting becomes both his emotional lifeline and his albatross - his salvation and his damnation.

He clings to it, wrapped in some old newspaper, through his stay with the wealthy Barbours, then with his alcoholic father (Luke Wilson) and his brash girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) in Las Vegas, before he makes it back to New York to softly-spoken and kind-hearted restorer Hobie (Jeffrey Wright).

The story time-jumps several years to Theo's early 20s (now played by Elgort) and his deceptions and compromised morality starts to catch up on him.

The Goldfinch is earnest to a fault, which becomes its one-dimensional setting as it slowly plods along from location to location.

Perhaps The Goldfinch's first mistake was the decision to adapt it into a movie in the first place because it's the kind of literary source material that would've been better suited to a three- or six-part miniseries.

The book works because it's so character-driven and the film fails to capture that depth and interiority. Whether that's the format or the time limitations is debatable, or maybe Peter Straughan's screenplay couldn't match the might of Tartt's words.

There are also some strange editing choices - scenes jump around and start and cut away at odd moments.

Fegley, the actor playing young Theo, is very effective but when it shifts to Elgort there's a disconnect - you don't believe that it's the same character. It's not even that Elgort is miscast, it's more that the adult Theo is underwritten, ironic given Tartt's detailed and very long novel.

There's a subplot involving Theo's love for Pippa, a girl his age caught in the same attack, and it's supposed to be this star-crossed deal, she's his Juliet, but neither the younger pairing (Fegley and Aimee Laurence) or the older versions (Elgort and Ashleigh Cummings) convince us that there's much between them. A few furtive looks from Theo isn't enough to do it.

Kidman works as Samantha Barbour, the mother of Theo's childhood friend Andy who he stays with after the attack - in a lesser actor, Samantha may come off as icy but Kidman makes the distinction in playing her as patrician.

Paulson and Wright both turn in good performances and Denis O'Hare is slimy as a collector.

 

Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard has great screen presence as the slippery Boris
Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard has great screen presence as the slippery Boris

On the plus side, The Goldfinch looks beautiful, and you can thank acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins for that. The way he lit the Las Vegas sequences is truly stunning, the ochres of the bone-dry desert blended in with the striking blues of the night sky.

The Vegas interlude is the movie's most compelling and dynamic part despite being the part which dragged the most in the book - Wolfhard as young Boris is a crackerjack.

Theo's complex relationship with the Goldfinch painting anchors Tartt's book, it's the reason for its existence. That bond is sticky, tortured and symbolic of unresolved trauma and the loss of his mother, and it comes to stand in for Theo's desire for permanence in an ephemeral world.

But none of that makes it onto the screen. Without that, what is The Goldfinch anyway?

Rating: 2/5

The Goldfinch is in cinemas from Thursday, September 26

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