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Film

The Goldfinch's artsy fantasia is made drab and boring in its movie adaptation

The adaptation of Donna Tartt's acclaimed novel came with high expectations, and has left every single one of them dashed. Caspar Salmon talks us through the towering failure that is The Goldfinch

It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what has gone so wrong with something like The Goldfinch. The overall flavour of disaster has less to do with its obvious technical problems and more with a generalised sense of failure that hangs over proceedings, like The Nothing in The Never-Ending Story. This feeling, this all-pervading malaise, infects every element of the film, lending each scene a faintly stale after-taste; the impression the movie gives off is akin to that of a bad house-party, where the atmosphere somehow never quite coalesces into fun. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have glaring individual faults to point and laugh at – indeed almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong here – but that its general not-quite-there-ness is perhaps its most distressing aspect.

The film opens in Amsterdam with a series of confusing, blurry shots of rain-spattered windows, as adult Theodore Decker (Ansel Elgort) reminisces in voice-over about how he came to find himself there. The film then skips backward, to when child Theo (played by Oakes Fegley) came to find himself in possession of a painting, 'The Goldfinch', after a bomb in a museum killed his mother. Already, in these first few minutes, the film displays several of its dispiritingly kitsch hallmarks: a kind of neutral, antiseptic aesthetic; a jittery handle on plot and chronology; shots that waver artsily in and out of focus; and a clumsy rhythm born of poorly alternated short and long sequences. Fegley, looking and acting like a miniature William H. Macy, isn’t an obvious choice for the protagonist, and struggles to anchor the film emotionally in these early scenes as his character moves in with the very wealthy Barbour family. (Casting problems abound, not least in later scenes depicting the friendship between Theo and Boris – a pairing that doesn’t work.)

An early, worrying sign that the film is set to descend to laugh-along levels of dreadfulness comes when Nicole Kidman, playing Samantha Barbour, caresses a signet ring and murmurs, “Lovely… carnelian - the intaglio.” The film would already have enough difficulties even if its cast didn’t have to go mano a mano with this sort of dialogue, which also gives us “I can recommend the poularde” and “Can I speak to Mr Brace-Girdle please”, and which forces Jeffrey Wright, a capable actor, to grapple with the line, “Is that him, the man who gave you the ring? His name was Welty Blackwell.”

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Those rococo names lifted straight from Donna Tartt’s acclaimed novel tell you that whatever element of fantasia the book may have been going for, with its world of paintings, music, empty desert houses, drugs and antique furniture, has been lost in translation. The film makes the mistake of presenting all this stuff completely straight up, rendering it drab and absurd, even emo. This is the sort of film where characters discovering a new room walk into it backwards in wonder; where people cry two big tears from the middle of their eyes; where every shot is set-dressed to within an inch of its life with bottles of nail varnish, papier-mâché decorations and intrusively shimmering light fittings. At one point, lacking anything else to stimulate my senses, I became briefly fixated on a pig-shaped ashtray that had erroneously been granted centre stage and which quite naturally proceeded to steal the limelight from its human co-stars.

The story of the painting continues to twist and turn – or should that be stumble and lurch – throughout the film, as child Theo decamps with his stolen painting to Vegas with his estranged father (Luke Wilson) and his father’s girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), where he meets the aforementioned Boris. Playing teenage Boris, towering over Theo with dark locks and a loud, artificial laugh, Finn Wolfhard gives the lone performance that attempts to inject any welly into things. But the film makes a bad hash of the homoerotic dynamic between the two, which in turn hampers later scenes between Theo and adult Boris (Aneurin Barnard), as the two attempt to recover the painting, now lost to a sketchily depicted criminal underworld. The movie’s late wobble into guns' n’ action, a good two hours into its runtime, acts as a final coup de grâce to any verisimilitude or emotional qualities the film may have aspired to.

These failings mean that the central storyline of an orphaned boy taking refuge in art and love, which should carry a substantial sentimental load, feels strained and remote. Ansel Elgort doesn’t quite reconcile his character’s egotism and vulnerability, so his breakdowns and self-realisation remain of little interest. The film almost wholly fails to convince the viewer of the interest of this story, as evidenced in a late scene that mines the metaphorical qualities of 'The Goldfinch' painting, namely its resilient beauty: this is an aspect of the narrative that the film should have teased out and decorated for our viewing pleasure, but no – the film is content to tell us about it in voice-over.

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