Film of the week: Goldfinch flies into trouble off the pages
John Crowley’s lush and meandering adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel is unfocussed and dull, says Paul Whitington
One could write a long piece - in fact, I think I have - about disastrous adaptations of good books. It happens all the time, usually when film-makers adopt an over-literal, too respectful approach to the original text and fail to lift it off the page. Reams of dialogue, learned digressions and mysterious epiphanies might work well in novels, but images, not words, are cinema's engine, and establishing a visual sensibility is more important than sticking slavishly to the schema of a book.
Vision is the key: witness Apocalypse Now, based on a late 19th century Joseph Conrad novella that dealt with the excesses of Belgian rule in the Congo, but set during the Vietnam War, or There Will Be Blood, a brilliant critique of American capitalism inspired by Upton Sinclair's Oil!. These are adaptations worthy of their source. Then there's The Goldfinch.
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Donna Tartt's 2013 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize and earned rave reviews (with some dissensions), is 700 pages long and packed from end to end with dense descriptive prose. And though its storyline, involving bomb attacks, stolen paintings drugs, guns and international criminals, sounds eminently cinematic, a firm hand and a large blue pencil would be required to turn it into anything resembling a coherent film. The Goldfinch may be a film - it is not coherent.
Directed by Irishman John Crowley, and adapted by Peter Straughan, it burbles on for nearly two-and-three-quarter hours, a statistic which does not imply rigorous pruning. But The Goldfinch is not entirely slavish regarding its source, and abandons the book's chronology for a trickier time-line.
We start, in fact, at the end, as a weary young man called Theodore Decker (Ansel Elgort) hides out in an Amsterdam hotel, living on room service, staring out at the grey Dutch skies and muttering over and over "it's all my fault". We then leap back in time to investigate Theo's tragic history.
Aged 13, he was visiting the Metropolitan Museum with his mother when a terrorist bomb exploded, killing her and many more besides. Theo survived and, at the behest of an injured old man, took with him a small but exquisite painting called The Goldfinch. (It's real, by the way, the work of Carel Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt's who died in a freak explosion.) The artwork will be a mixed blessing for Theo, a kind of emotional security blanket, but also a stern reproach: after all, he survived. With nowhere to go, Theo is taken in by the kindly, patrician family of a school friend. The icy matriarch, Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman), takes a shine to the boy, encourages his artistic sensibilities and is about to adopt him when Theo's dad Larry (Luke Wilson) turns up and whisks the kid off to Vegas.
That sounds exciting, but Larry's a feckless drunk, and they end up living in an abandoned ghost estate on the edge of the desert where coyotes prowl by night. Theo's understandable depression is lifted when he meets Boris (Aneurin Barnard), a Russian schoolmate who introduces him to the joys of vodka and industrial-strength drugs. But Theo won't settle there either and winds up back in New York, gaining an unlikely apprenticeship in the antiques trade. And all the while his traumas - and that painting - follow him.
To be fair to Crowley and Straughan, adapting Tartt's long, digressive and rather implausible novel was never going to be easy, but surely they could have done a better job than this. To do so, bold decisions would have to have been made, spurious plotlines jettisoned, emphasis given to the more cinematically promising.
The Barbour family, for instance, are a snooty brood rich in potential entertainment value, and for the 20 minutes or so we get of her, Kidman provides fascinating hints of an emotionally repressed woman haunted by tragedies of her own. Her husband is an unstable monomaniac and the Barbour family meals provide the most interesting moments in the film. So much more could have been made of that, or of Theo's contradictory father for that matter, but The Goldfinch is a film simultaneously restless and unfocussed.
After a busy opening, it muddles aimlessly through Theo's back-story in ways neither interesting nor edifying, meandering like a drought-stricken river for a couple of hours before packing its climax into a giddy 20 minutes. Like the book, The Goldfinch takes itself terribly seriously, but for the viewer, this feat is impossible.
The Goldfinch (12A, 149mins) - 2 stars
Films coming soon...
Joker (Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen); Judy (Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell); Werewolf (Kamil Polnisiak, Sonia Meitielica); Losing Alaska (Tom Burke).
At the Movies - Your guide to all the week's new releases
Ready Or Not (18, 95mins) - 4 stars
A hammy horror with a winning sense of humour, Ready Or Not stars Australian actor Samara Weaving as Grace, a former foster-home kid with few airs and graces who's about to marry into the rather weird and exceedingly wealthy Le Domas family. On her wedding night, Grace's new parents-in-law ask her to play an arcane initiation game. She thinks it's hide and seek, but soon realises they're trying to kill her and may in fact be in league with the devil. Comparisons with Get Out are spurious, as Ready Or Not has little of substance to say, but it is gleefully sadistic, very witty and Weaving has impeccable comic timing.
Hotel Mumbai (15A, 123mins) - 3 stars
On November 26, 2008, a group of Islamist terrorists snuck into Mumbai on small boats and began a carefully orchestrated three-day attack that left almost 200 dead and over 700 wounded. This film, with some rigour but questionable taste, dramatises the incident, and focuses on the assault on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Dev Patel stars as a waiter who tries to save as many guests as possible, including a slightly lost-looking Armie Hammer. Hotel Mumbai does make you appreciate the true horror of the event, but using the attacks as a backdrop for what is a pretty conventional action film made me a little queasy.
Best Before Death (No Cert, IFI, 89mins) - 3 stars
Paul Duane's documentary follows Scottish artist and musician Bill Drummond on two stages of his 12-year 'world tour', a kind of ongoing art pilgrimage in which Drummond shows up in various locations - Kolkata, India, Lexington, Kentucky - to perform a series of menial but perhaps meaningful tasks. Bill walks along banging a drum, shines shoes, builds a bed, makes soup, bakes cakes and distributes them to understandably cautious strangers. If you asked Drummond what the purpose of all this was, he would probably shrug and plead ignorance. It feels penitential, but he seems to be having a nice time.