The Goldfinch (2019) ***

September 25th, 2019
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Jason Crowley | Cast: Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Willa Fitzgerald, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Ashleigh Cummings | US Drama 149′

A young boy takes a 17th century painting of a goldfinch from the scene of an explosion at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art where his mother is killed. The famous work of art serves as a constant reminder of her love and a metaphor for his own fight for survival. The boy is Theodore Decker and The Goldfinch is by¬†Dutch master Carel Fabritius.

Based on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winning best-seller, this sprawling but deeply affecting drama has been adapted for the screen by British writer Peter Straughan (Wolf Hall) who has decided to slowly reveal the beginning of the story at the end of the film. It’s as if elements of the tragedy have remained buried in Theodore’s subconscious and with time gradually come flooding back during the course of the narrative. Although the book’s essential plot elements are retained, this structural change has divided audiences faithful to the original.

New York is slick and sumptuously cinematic in Roger Deakins’ lush camerawork that breathes life into the stiff upper lip of its Upper East side locations where Theodore lives out his bereaved childhood. Even the explosion scenes take on a dreamlike Tarkovskyian feel as the boy pieces together the tragic event in tortured recollections: “We’re so used to disguising ourselves to others, that in the end we disguise ourselves to ourselves”. Played convincingly as a boy by Oakes Fegley, and bravely as Ansel Elgort as a young man, we feel for his buried and buttoned-up pain although he does his best to hide it growing up as an well-behaved orphan in the prim Barbour household: Nicole Kidman is suitably nipped, tucked and botoxed as the winsome lady of the house, where he finds a soulmate in her sensitive young son Andy (Foust). But his abusive estranged father (Luke Wilson) has an eye to the boy’s inheritance and soon scoops him up and away to a repossessed housing estate in Las Vegas with his railer-trash girlfriend (Paulson), and it is there that he does most of his growing up in a gambling-fuelled, drug-addled lifestyle. And this is where Theo also forms a lifelong friendship with Ukrainian Boris – played by a spiky Finn Wolfhard as a kid. Theodore will meet him again years later in New York and Aneurin Barnard playing adult Boris as a nervy restless fervour, not unlike a male take on Fleabag’s Villanelle. Boris’ new life and their close friendship holds the key to the importance of the painting for Theodore, who grows into just the kind of emotionally detached adult you would expect given his past. Constantly absorbing new traumas, he puts his best food forward with a slick persona, and Ansel Elgort is superb at projecting this rather glib exterior as Head of Sales in the antique business headed up by the urbanely earthy antique dealer Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), but Theo remains wedded to security net of the Barbour family. His discrete passion for fellow survivor Pippa (Ashleigh Cumming) shines through his well-manicured exterior. Clearly he’s crying inside when they meet up again as adults, bonded by pain. And it’s one of the more emotional scenes of this engrossing saga that slowly gathers momentum in the final moving reveal. The book is not the film. The film is a slow-burning but intriguing portrait of childhood grief and survival. MT

OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM FRIDAY 27 SEPTEMBER 2019

 

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