Wednesday, September 18, 2019

(A Not at All Review of) The Goldfinch

Years ago my best friend Sarah (who has a particularly impressive knack when it comes to gift giving) gave me a goldfinch pendant. I was wearing it this past Sunday when I went to see The Goldfinch, John Crowleyʼs big screen adaptation of Donna Tarttʼs 2014 novel, which was inspired, in part, by a painting Carel Fabritius painted in 1654 (the same year that he was killed in The Delft Explosion).

I was wearing the pendant on Sunday, August 25th, 2013, when I attended a Days of Our Lives fan event in Atlanta and first met Blake Berris, an actor whose tremendous talent is matched by his enormous capacity for empathy, which makes him both compelling to watch onscreen and wonderful to be around in person. Tarttʼs novel was still two months shy of publication and I had no idea at the time that Fabritiusʼs painting was hanging nearby at the High Museum, as part of the exhibition Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis (my husband and I had initially intended to visit the museum that day, so that we could see Vermeer’s Girl for ourselves, but we scrapped the plan when we realized how pressed for time we’d be).

Until Donna Tartt published her Pulitzer Prize winning tome - a massive, meandering, marvelous bildungsroman that prominently features the titular masterwork - Fabritius’s little bird had never appeared on my radar, because my knowledge of the Dutch masters pretty much begins and ends with Vermeer (and even then I don’t know much apart from that very - deservedly- celebrated girl). I could have visited the High that day in 2013, seen the Vermeer, and walked right past the tiny goldfinch, possibly pausing to give it a cursory glance, possibly overlooking it altogether. There’s probably a parallel world that exists somewhere where this exact scenario plays out. It’s not what happened here, but it’s fun to think about.

I was not wearing the pendant the following spring, when I returned to Atlanta for another Days event, which, to me, was really just another opportunity to see Blake. By then the girl, the bird, and all the other Dutch masterworks had gone back home, but we discussed Tarttʼs novel, which I had read (and fallen hopelessly in love with) by that point and which Blake was about a hundred pages away from finishing. “I am loving The Goldfinch!” he happily exclaimed after weʼd hugged and exchanged hellos. A future cinematic adaptation felt inevitable, and I was dead set on Blake being a part of the cast (Iʼd imagined him in the role of my favorite character, Boris, as Iʼd read).

The irony that we were both in Atlanta, again, discussing a novel inspired by a Dutch masterpiece that had been on display a few miles away while weʼd both been in Atlanta the previous fall, was not lost on me. But, then, a coincidence like that wouldnʼt mean anything to anyone else. Because it doesnʼt really have any meaning for anyone else. Itʼs still fun to think about, though, right?

In 2017 I finally saw Fabritius’s Goldfinch for myself when I visited him in his permanent home at Mauritshuis. Heʼs pretty humble and approachable. He certainly has his admirers, but Vermeerʼs Girl with a Pearl Earring still draws the biggest crowds and the most ardent gawkers. I know heʼs well cared for but standing there, looking at him two years ago, I could understand why Tartt would be inspired to write a story about a boy who steals that particular painting. “The urge,” I posted on Instagram at the time, “to pluck him off the wall was damn near overwhelming.” Itʼs not that I wanted him for myself. Itʼs that I didnʼt want to leave him. Walking away I felt like I was abandoning him, and he seemed so alone, tethered to his tiny perch, and - him being so much smaller than the other works on display - very vulnerable. But I guess the girl keeps an eye on him. And, truth be told, if I were a painting, the Hague is probably where I’d wanna live.

Unlike Donna Tartt’s novel, the reviews for John Crowley’s adaptation of The Goldfinch have mostly been negative. Having seen the movie for myself I can say that I enjoyed it very much, that I think my appreciation for it will probably deepen after a second viewing, even, but I understand why some viewers might be put off by it. For the first hour or so I’ll admit to being a bit confounded. I had read that the narrative had been taken out of chronological order, and the seemingly random order in which scenes were playing out made the story feel deliberately inscrutable. I knew what was going on only because I already knew the story; had I gone in blind I don’t know that I would’ve had any idea what was happening, or that I would have had the patience to stick with it long enough for the movie to find its groove. But I like to think I would have. Because while I enjoyed Tartt’s novel from the outset it really started to come alive for me during the Vegas section, and it was that same section of the movie where I felt things really beginning to come together. The narrative that I’d first found so frustrating smoothed out, the story more or less progressing in a chronological fashion but with crucial moments either withheld or inserted earlier in the timeline to generate a desired impact. It’s not how I would have chosen to adapt Tartt’s novel, but it’s a fascinating approach, one which ultimately allowed the filmmakers to stay faithful to their source while also establishing their work as a separate entity with its own unique sort of energy.

At seven hundred plus pages Donna Tartt covers a lot of ground in her novel, but has a lot of time to cover it in. At a hundred and forty nine minutes John Crowley’s movie hits all the high points; I’m reluctant to say it feels rushed because there’s a dreamy, almost lackadaisical quality to the The Goldfinch onscreen but, by the end of it, I certainly felt as if I’d experienced a lot. There’s just so much to take in: so much plot, so many characters, so many locations and notions and meditations and subtleties. And maybe some of it could have been excised, maybe it isn’t all essential. But I can’t think of a single second I’d cut from the movie. And while I would happily watch a much longer version I’m not sure that extending the length would necessarily make for a better or more worthwhile viewing experience.

My reaction to Crowley’s film was always going to rest on whether I felt like certain things had been “done right,” by which I really just mean “to my own satisfaction.” Would Jeffrey Wright embody the qualities that I loved about his character, Hobie, when I read the novel - his compassionate, nurturing, accepting nature, and his appreciation for both the history and the beauty of objects? Of course he would. And every time Wright turned up I was delighted to be in his company, and always sad to see him go. Would cinematographer Roger Deakins capture the hazy, hallucinogenic wasteland atmosphere of the Las Vegas suburb where Theo languishes for the middle section of the story with Boris, his closest friend, confidant, and partner (in crime, as well as other things)? If you’re at all familiar with his work you’ll know there’s nothing I can say here that could adequately convey the visual alchemy that Deakins is able to conjure onscreen, and his aesthetic is perfectly wedded to a story where the interplay of light - as it stirs dust motes in a still room, as it falls across the corner of a tiny, purloined masterpiece - is such an essential component.

More than anything I was anxious to see the onscreen version of Boris, a character I feel deeply attached to in the same highly personal way that I do all my favorite fictional characters. Happily, like the novel, Boris was one of my favorite things about the movie. Finn Wolfhard comes uncannily close to replicating the young Boris of my mind. For me he could not have been more perfect in the role if I had conjured him fully formed from my own subconscious. Aneurin Barnard, who has far less screen time, is excellent as well, and I mostly believed the two actors were playing the same person. I’ll never be able to let go of the idea of Blake Berris as grown up Boris but, luckily for me, nobody’s asking me to.

All this to say I can’t tell you if you’d enjoy this movie or not. I mostly felt compelled to write about it because seeing the story play out on the big screen stirred up so many memories for me, and I enjoyed revisiting them, and being reminded of how much I enjoyed reading that book, and seeing that bird for myself, and being able to share those experiences with other people. And it’s interesting to me to see the way in which other artists have interpreted something I have such a strong attachment to, and I’m sure they feel a strong attachment to it as well. I think there’s an audience out there for this movie, that it will speak to certain people, whether they’ve read the book or not. Or maybe those who haven’t read it will feel compelled to seek it out after seeing the movie, and maybe they’ll take some comfort and some inspiration from it the way that I have. I guess I feel like art is meant to be shared - even though we sometimes want to keep the things we cherish most just for ourselves - and I hope this movies finds its way into the lives of the people who need it. At least it’s nice to think it will.