Sunday 24 November 2019

The Goldfinch ☆☆☆☆☆

On the 17th of September, BBC News ran a piece on The Goldfinch that surely had a lot of studio executives shitting themselves. On its opening weekend, the film took just $2.6m at the US box office. Sure, that still sounds like a lot of money to you and me – but the big-screen adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel was expected to make at least $12m during that period. Opening on 2,542 screens, the film now holds the record for the 6th worst US opening for a film on between 2,500-3,000 screens since records began in 1982. Ouch.

Initially expected to be a big awards contender, due to the film’s magnificent source novel that has been showered in awards since publication in 2013, The Goldfinch’s cinematic outing has become one of the biggest shocks of the year – nay, the decade. 

For those unfamiliar with the 800-page doorstopper of a novel, we follow the story of Theodore Decker (Ansel Elgort), who was 13 years old when his mother was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The tragedy changes the course of his life, sending him on a stirring odyssey of grief and guilt, reinvention and redemption, crime, and even love. Through it all, he holds on to one tangible piece of hope from that terrible day - a painting of a tiny bird chained to its perch, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.

But despite the immense power and complexity of the novel, the film reduces it all to a vapid and soulless Oscars-bait drama that barely justifies its own existence. Clocking in at 2 and a half hours, the bloated and tedious film that feels like anyone involved with the production didn’t even read the book and instead adapted this disaster from the Wikipedia synopsis. Totally devoid of character and passion, it is a hollow film without life and without love – a forced and uncomfortable watch that does a huge disservice to Tartt’s novel. 

Bizarrely, Jeff Goldstein (president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros) has stated in response to the film’s dreadful debut that “there were many things that didn’t work, but the biggest was probably the marketplace” and that he feels “the audience wasn’t interested in seeing this literary work onscreen”. If even Warner Bros are admitting that nobody wants this film, then it’s a pretty lost cause.
Visually, the film often looks gorgeous – the cinematography by Oscar-winner Roger Deakins is certainly the film’s greatest asset, as is the case with almost any film Deakins shoots. The man has a gift for shot composition and could make even the worst film at least look stunning. And despite some solid work from the cast – Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright, in particular, shines, alongside some great work from Nicole Kidman and the lead Ansel Elgort – the film is still utterly dead in the water. It’s hard to say where the main issue lies. Is it John Crowley’s sloppy direction? More likely Peter Straughan’s soulless screenplay that shits all over Tartt’s phenomenal novel. But like Warner Bros’ Jeff Goldstein himself said, “there were many things that didn’t work”. Absolutely right.

A few months ago, I would’ve put good money on The Goldfinch being an Oscars frontrunner. Hell, I would’ve even not given a second thought to putting money on it winning Best Picture. Now, the only awards it’s likely to pick up are Razzies. If nothing else, The Goldfinch is a cautionary tale of how to not adapt a book for the screen, and even a reminder that not all stories work onscreen. Despite some solid work from the cast and a beautiful visual style from Roger Deakins, The Goldfinch is destined to be one of the worst films of 2019 and maybe even the decade.

Sam Love

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