Everything you’ve heard about The Goldfinch is wrong. Or at least, the slew of negative articles about John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s bestseller only tell part of the story. Those who are unfamiliar with Tartt’s uniquely porcelain prose, or her wonderfully wandering, lyrical storytelling style, must find a film version of The Goldfinch must be a confounding experience, and one that provides a rare opportunity to take a sky kick at corporate behemoth Amazon, whose Amazon Studios label co-produced this prestigious film. But amongst the articles crowing about the potential amount of money lost, and gawping at film-makers who dare to turn their vision to white privilege, there’s a secret truth about Crowley’s film; it’s a meticulous, beautifully mounted adaptation that deserves an audience.
The Goldfinch is about a boy, Theodore Decker, played by Oakes Fegley and then by Angel Elgort. At the age of 13, Decker sees his mother killed in a bombing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and staggers from the chaos with a copy of a rare painting of a Goldfinch in his rucksack. Despite gravitating towards the mother of a friend (Nicole Kidman) and an antiques dealer (Jeffrey Wright), Decker is sent in Dickensian fashion to stay with his errant father (Luke Wilson) and his partner (Sarah Paulson) in a semi-constructed suburb of Las Vegas. A drug-addled friendship with a young Russian (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard) provides Decker with some much-needed relief, but the painting remains a secret, a connection with his mother that Decker finds impossible to let go of.
Condensing a 600 page novel into a script is a tough assignment, and Peter Straughn’s work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Wolf Hall marked him out as a perfect candidate for the job. He finds an ideal ally in cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings a stark clarity to the film, which buzzing lights in the background suggesting another world just out of reach. And Crowley is a uniquely sensitive director, able to capture the uncertainty of Decker as a boy and a young adult, and to make his struggle with grief accessible.
Sensation seekers need to apply for a finely wrought film like The Goldfinch; there’s no explanation for the bombing, and the resolution is deliberately satisfying in a thematic rather than a crowd-pleasing way. Opening against Hustlers, one of the few adult orientated films of 2019, was probably the final nail in the coffin for The Goldfinch theatrically, but those who ignore the general disapproval may well be surprised; it’s a first rate film.