Helen Tope reviews The Goldfinch, showing in our cinema until Thursday 31 October.
Taking a book from page to screen is no easy task. In adapting such a large, complex book, the temptation is to go simpler; to pare down the ideas. But with Donna Tartt’s novel, the level of expectation demands a care and precision beyond the norm.
Published in 2013, Tartt’s novel was a long-awaited return of an author not prone to huge output. With only three novels to her name, including The Secret History, Tartt has created a singular voice that is fiendishly hard to reproduce.
The Goldfinch tells the story of 13-year-old Theo Decker. Living in New York with his Mum, they go into the Metropolitan Museum to kill time before a meeting at Theo’s school. As they wander through the galleries, Theo’s Mum points out her favourite painting, The Goldfinch, by 16th century painter Carel Fabritius. As they stand before the painting, Theo eyes the pretty girl and an older man standing next to them.
Theo’s mum lets him stand there by the painting, as she wanders off to look at more. The next sequence of events happen in a heartbeat. A man shouts, pleading with everyone to get down. A blast follows, along with a huge plume of smoke and debris. Theo loses sight of his mother.
As he comes to, he realises the museum has been bombed. Picking himself up and walking through the debris, he finds the old man. His name is Welton Blackwell, and he gives Theo a beautiful carnelian ring, insisting he take it to James Hobart, his business partner. The Goldfinch lies next to them in the dust. Blackwell urges Theo to take the painting, to keep it safe. In his confusion, Theo pushes the painting into his rucksack. He emerges from the museum dazed and bewildered. He heads home, and waits for his mother to return. She has died in the explosion, and Theo eventually rings the emergency helpline flashed across the news channels. With his dad out of the picture, Theo is offered emergency care with his schoolfriend Andy Barbour. The wealthy, Park Avenue Barbours take Theo in, who is immediately taken with the enigmatic Mrs Barbour (played by Nicole Kidman).
As Theo tries to deal with his grief, he remembers the ring and seeks out the Hobart and Blackwell store. It is an antique furniture shop, specialising in reproductions and repair. Theo seeks out James Hobart (Hobie) and becomes fascinated with this world of old things. Between spending time with Hobie, and playing Dungeons and Dragons with Andy, Theo’s recovery is on track.
Returning home one day from school, Mrs Barbour announces that Theo’s father has returned to claim him. They are to move across the country to a housing estate on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Taking The Goldfinch with him, Theo has no choice but to say his goodbyes.
Now living with his dad, Theo befriends a boy called Boris. Left to their own devices, Boris and Theo spend their time drinking and taking drugs. They confide in each other; both have lost their mothers, both have next to no relationship with their fathers. Boris, the son of a Ukranian businessman, swears allegiance to Theo; friends for life.
It soon becomes clear that Theo’s dad has little interest in the boy beyond his trust fund. When his scheme to transfer Theo’s school-money into a separate account fails, Theo has no option to leave and build a new family around him in New York. Hours spent in the Hobart and Blackwell workshop teaches Theo not only the finer points of reproduction furniture, but how to create a persona from thin air. A little Barbour polish, a good wardrobe and smart manners, take Theo to the heart of New York society. But, like the furniture, the identity is an assemblage of ideas.
Theo takes on the sales role at Hobart and Blackwell, and the once struggling business begins to flourish; Hobie doesn’t question why. When Theo is summoned to a lunch by a customer, we learn that he has left out key details of provenance. A part-antique, part-reproduction piece has been sold as the real thing. The customer not only wants reparation, he comes armed with knowledge. He has done his homework on Theo, and his connection with the Museum bombing. Hobie’s story about how young Theo came to him with Blackwell’s carnelian ring is well known in the New York art scene. The missing masterpiece presumed lost in the blast, a boy interested in antiques. The customer has joined up the dots. He slides across the lunch table a recent news article about The Goldfinch being used as collateral in a drug deal. Theo is stunned by the impossibility of it – the real painting is tucked away in a storage locker.
The Goldfinch has been criticised for being too lengthy at nearly three hours, but when what is being filmed is a densely-packed 700-page novel, you have to go where the book takes you. Director John Crowley matches his previous success in bringing Brooklyn to the big screen, with The Goldfinch being allowed room to breathe and develop.
In her approach to character and time, Donna Tartt’s work is almost Dickensian in its complexity. The atmosphere of The Goldfinch requires time to ripen as the narrative builds to create a world so real you can almost touch it.
The painterly adaptation of the book – with beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins – serves to illustrate the sharp contrasts in which Theo finds himself. The rich interiors of the Barbour residence compared to the arid blankness of the Nevada desert. Being passed from the guardianship of the Barbours, and into his dad’s chaotic life, Theo enters a shady world of small-time gangsters and dodgy deals.
Theo’s journey is explored with real care, although the time spent on Theo’s childhood does make the film feel a little top-heavy. However, when you have child actors as special as Oakes Fegley (Young Theo), Finn Wolfhard (Young Boris) and Ryan Foust (Andy Barbour), the temptation to stay in their world must be overwhelming. Fegley outshines Ansel Elgort who takes on the adult role for the latter scenes, giving us a child torn apart by grief and guilt.
The Goldfinch painting, a talisman of hope for young Theo, becomes the impetus for the rest of the film as Theo moves from New York to Amsterdam. We move into art-world thriller mode, with a chance encounter compelling Theo to search for answers.
As a film, The Goldfinch delivers on its promise. If you are a fan of the book, and want to be immersed in that world again, you will not be disappointed. This is not a pacy art-heist film, it is written in another language altogether. It is a film that asks for your time, but in doing so, will not waste it. A quiet masterpiece, with a rally of superb performances to back it up. The Goldfinch is a beautifully-voiced odyssey through pain and privilege.