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Tartt break: ‘The Goldfinch’

By Luke Goodsell
John Crowley plays a good hand poorly with this adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel

Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker in The Goldfinch. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The tangled tale of one Theo Decker, a boy who loses a mother but gains a Dutch Golden Age masterpiece during a horrific art gallery bombing, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Goldfinch (2013) is a whole lotta book: elegiac coming-of-age fable, underworld crime thriller, art-history lesson, literary smash and scourge of highbrow snobs (some of whom dismissed the bestseller’s Dickensian teenage poetry as though that were somehow a bad thing). Yet while there’s plenty of plot woven through its nearly 800 pages, the novel is defined less by incident than by that intangible feeling that haunts Tartt’s best work: a sense of lingering melancholy; of memories and moments slipping through the impermanence of existence; of the fringe worlds and secret histories to which her characters cling, caretakers of mysteries they can only glimpse in passing. At its most sublime, Tartt’s prose evokes, as Theo says of the eponymous Fabritius painting, the way “we can speak to each other across time”.

That essence proves elusive to John Crowley’s confounding film adaptation of The Goldfinch (in cinemas September 26), from a script by Peter Straughan (whose 2017 The Snowman helped transform Jo Nesbø’s book into one of the worst films of that year). The film does the book a disservice by going beyond mere perfunctory treatment of plot points to become the sort of prestige mauling that’s almost hostile in its mishandling of the source material. It begins in the present, with Ansel Elgort as the twenty-something Theo, scattered and bloody in an Amsterdam hotel room, where you half expect him to utter, over a freeze-frame and record scratch, “You might be wondering how I ended up here.” But rather than situating its audience in the narrative by returning to the novel’s inciting event, the movie flashes back to an already-orphaned Theo (Oakes Fegley), a distant 13-year-old living with his surrogate socialite family on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – where the immaculate matriarch, Mrs Barbour, a pinched and contoured Nicole Kidman, tends to his foster care.

Theo’s emotional paralysis, and his possession of the pivotal painting, barely registers before the film races ahead to his meeting James “Hobie” Hobart (Jeffrey Wright, doing what he can to anchor the material), a downtown antiques dealer who takes the boy under his wing and begins to teach him the trade. It’s here that Theo re-encounters Pippa (Aimee Laurence), a girl with whom he’d shared a fleeting moment at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who’s now sporting a very punk-rock, partially shaved skull that reveals a Frankenstein surgery scar from the bombing. Just as this story is settling in, the film jumps back to the present, where his secret ownership of the stolen artwork – which has become, much like the scene the painting depicts, a perch to which he’s forever shackled – has led him afoul of a sinister art buyer, Lucius Reeve (Denis O’Hare), and soon, an underworld of drug dealers.

Readers will be up to speed on these details, but it’s anyone’s guess whether they make any sense, let alone establish an emotional connection, to the uninitiated. It’s rapidly, and frustratingly, apparent that the novel’s formative opening chapters, which establish both Theo’s relationship with his mother and the circumstances of the tragic bombing – so, the essential elements of the entire story; its very heart – have been excised in an effort to portion them out over the movie’s runtime, in the presumed belief that this reveal will somehow contribute to the intrigue of the film’s narrative.

This approach turns out to be a disaster. It’s a struggle here to feel Theo’s maternal loss and his ensuing trauma, his hopeful moment with Pippa, or the impact from the dying words of her companion, and Hobie’s partner, Welty – elements that are spliced intermittently via flashback throughout the film’s two-and-a-half-hours. In more assured hands the cross-cutting between the past and present might have conveyed a sense of fragmented memory, of Tartt’s prose as that dialogue across time, but the stakes haven’t been established. When Elgort reappears mid film, monologuing in front of a hotel mirror like Patrick Bateman, he seems less like a young man hiding beneath a façade than a smug jerk in a three-piece suit – a situation not assisted by the three expressions Crowley has coaxed out of the actor’s performance.

In lieu of coherent emotional narrative, The Goldfinch occasionally takes flight in peripheral pleasures. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is unsurprisingly pretty, embalming the movie’s Upper East Side chambers in a stately amber glow and evoking the eerie, lunar landscape of suburban Las Vegas, where Theo is temporarily dispatched to live with his deadbeat dad (Luke Wilson, nailing it) and trashy, would-be stepmother (Sarah Paulson, likewise). These sequences are the closest the film gets to Tartt’s peculiar evocation of mid-2000s America, and of a western frontier whose expansive new-money promise has run aground on ugly identikit houses, tiled floors and perpetual air conditioning. They’re also home to movie’s most affecting relationship, between Theo and fellow orphan Boris, who’s played by Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard with a cartoonish Russian accent as the kind of worldly outlier that Timothée Chalamet’s era-adjacent dipshit in Lady Bird (2017) wished he could be. And though the relationship’s queer subtext from the novel is downplayed, the scenes of Theo and Boris bonding, as they trip in nightmarish abandoned pools and stalk the ghostly blue-and-orange dusk to Radiohead’s “Codex” and “Everything In Its Right Place”, are standouts in a movie with precious few of them.

Tartt’s work surely isn’t the easiest to adapt – there’s a reason we’ve never seen a film of her beloved 1992 debut, The Secret History, beyond its many aborted production attempts – but even so, it’s deflating to experience a movie that misses the mark so comprehensively, prizing the tale over the telling. As The Goldfinch crawls toward its action-movie finish, arguably the novel’s least interesting element but one that Crowley makes sure to capture faithfully, it’s actually remarkable how dull the narrative has become; how this ostensible story of overwhelming sadness and perseverance has been rendered as such a third-rate crime thriller. Lacking the emotional expressionism of, say, Sofia Coppola’s clandestine worlds, or the fragile, preppy societies of Whit Stillman that might have gotten at the novel’s true nature, Crowley’s box-checking treatment barely suggests Tartt’s affinity for time’s bittersweet indifference.

There’s one such passage late in the novel, in which Theo confesses that the only truths he cares about are the ones that are inexplicable, that he’s “never felt the mystery of the future so much: sense of the hourglass running out, fast-running fever of time. Forces unknown, unchosen, unwilled.” Cinema, perhaps more than any of the arts, has the ability to evoke this, but by turning the mysteries of Tartt’s novel into a tiresomely neat puzzle-narrative, the film lets the soul of the material escape it. Destined to irritate fans of the book and bore those who aren’t familiar, The Goldfinch ends up a perplexing, unloveable artefact.

As Hobie says of a knockoff antique chair during the film, “It’s a reproduction – and not a very good one.”

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker in The Goldfinch. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

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