Film review: The Goldfinch is lavishly filmed but keeps us at arm's length

Irish director John Crowley helms this adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch but, though beautifully crafted, it keeps audiences frustratingly at arms length, writes Damon Smith

Nicole Kidman in The Goldfinch
Damon Smith

LEAFING through the pages of cinema's chequered history, it's clear that Academy Award voters nurture an affection for films adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winning novels.

All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren claimed three golden statuettes in 1950 including Best Picture, The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk snagged seven nominations and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee translated eight nods into three wins, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker garnered an impressive 11 nominations (but famously won nothing on the night) while The Hours by Michael Cunningham competed in nine categories, securing Nicole Kidman the Best Actress prize for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf – complete with prosthetic nose.

The Goldfinch, adapted from Donna Tartt's 2013 bestseller, bears the hallmarks of another serious awards contender.

Cork-born director John Crowley's previous film was the heartrending rites-of-passage drama Brooklyn, screenwriter Peter Straughan was Oscar-nominated for his elegant distillation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, cinematographer Roger Deakins won last year for Blade Runner 2049, the cast includes Kidman concealed beneath ageing make-up and prosthetics, and the running time clocks in at almost two and a half hours.

Alas, appearances are deceiving because Tartt's compelling prose and artful storytelling have been hopelessly lost in a translation that marries a disjointed, chronologically fractured narrative with unsympathetic characters, who fail to make a palpable emotional impact on each other let alone touch us.

It's a beautifully crafted mess and we are increasingly bamboozled and frustrated observers.

Thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley) visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with his mother Audrey (Hailey Wist) when a bomb shatters the hushed calm. Audrey is killed, but the boy survives.

In the dust-filled aftermath, Theo accepts a ring from a fatally injured old man (Robert Joy), who instruct the lad to take a painting called The Goldfinch by 17th-century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. Theo obliges and exits with the canvas.

In the absence of his gambler father (Luke Wilson), Theo seeks temporary shelter with classmate Andy (Ryan Foust), whose well-to-do mother (Nicole Kidman) grows fond of her traumatised ward.

Theo blossoms (now played by Ansel Elgort) and he conceals the stolen painting in a storage unit while working in an antiques shop owned by James Hobart (Jeffrey Wright).

His uncertain fate becomes entwined with a light-fingered Ukrainian immigrant called Boris Pavlikovsky (Aneurin Barnard), who also lost a mother at an early age.

The Goldfinch is lavishly photographed and staged but keeps us at arm's length.

Pacing is disappointingly uneven and Crowley needlessly replays the museum bombing when one explosion would surely suffice.

Kidman lights up her stilted scenes, while Elgort affects a permanent gaze of bewilderment in lustrous close-up.

We certainly know how he feels.

THE GOLDFINCH (15, 149 mins) Drama/Thriller/Romance. Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Aneurin Barnard, Ryan Foust, Hailey Wist, Robert Joy. Director: John Crowley.

RATING: 4/10

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