Donna Tartt’s sparkling novel The Goldfinch is stodgy fare in the hands of director John Crowley, writes Alistair Harkness, but it’s not quite the car crash that early reviews and US box office stats suggest
The Goldfinch (15) ***
Hotel Mumbai (15) ****
Ready or Not (18) ****
The eponymous painting at the heart of The Goldfinch, Brooklyn director John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning source novel, is famous for having survived an explosion that killed its creator, the 17th century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius. It’s ironic, then, that this film version of Tartt’s novel looks unlikely to survive the critical drubbing it’s received since debuting at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month (it has already bombed at the US box office). Tartt used the painting’s curious history as an allegorical binding agent for an epically rendered story about a young boy who steals the titular painting from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art amid the chaos of a terrorist attack that also kills his mother. Exploring the intersection of art, memory, grief and guilt as the boy, Theo Decker, comes of age in a time of great uncertainty, the book took flight over 800 pages of exquisite prose as both a literary page-turner and something more profound. The film, by contrast, is too constrained by its efforts to condense the former aspect into a manageable plot to allow the novel’s intricate themes to soar in any meaningful way.
Which is too bad, because as frustratingly conventional as Crowley’s approach can be, the film isn’t the unwatchable Bonfire of the Vanities-style calamity advance word suggested. Jumping back-and-forth between Theo’s life as a 13-year-old privately educated student cut adrift by tragedy and his transformation into a charming 20-something antiques dealer whose fluid relationship with the truth puts him on a collision course with his past (Wonderstruck star Oakes Fegley plays Theo as a kid; Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort as a young man), the non-linear approach keeps the story rattling along, its elisions aided by the way Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography captures both the nose-pressed-against-the-glass allure of Theo’s ultra privileged New York milieu and the arid, post-financial-crash emptiness of Las Vegas, which becomes Theo’s temporary home when his deadbeat father (Luke Wilson) resurfaces.
There are some fine supporting performances too – from Sarah Paulson (as Theo’s father’s lush of a girlfriend) and Jeffrey Wright (as the furniture restorer whose friendship becomes a lifeline for Theo when he most needs it), to Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard, who plays the younger version of Boris, the lawless Ukrainian livewire who befriends Theo when he first arrives in Vegas. Still, it’s Nicole Kidman’s turn as Theo’s initial guardian, Mrs Barbour, that’s the real stand-out. Treating Theo as a kindred spirit, Kidman is so good at letting us see how Theo’s presence as both a boy and, later, an adult temporarily alleviates the lifetime of regret and sorrow silently weighing her down, it’s hard not to imagine what might have been had a director with more artistic flair – The Souvenir’s Joanna Hogg immediately springs to mind – been given free rein to adapt the book. As it stands, The Goldfinch plays it safe, which is the last thing art should do if it’s to have any hope of lasting.
Terrorism surfaces again in Hotel Mumbai, a dramatic reconstruction of the 2008 attack on Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel by the Islamist extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Following the template established by Paul Greengrass’s chaos-harnessing Bloody Sunday and, especially, his 9/11 drama United 93, the film plunges us into the melee by showing it from the prospective of both the hotel guests and staff and the gunmen themselves. This attempt to be even-handed extends to the breakdown of the storylines, with Dev Patel’s Sikh waiter, Arjun, becoming our entry point into a story that could easily have given in to the western bias that so often becomes the default angle whenever films are made about international terrorist situations. Not that this isn’t covered too. Armie Hammer reverts to type as a well-meaning, but culturally ignorant, American architect who gets separated from his lapsed Muslim wife (Nazanin Boniadi) and their infant daughter and British nanny as the gunmen stalk the decadent hotel, room by room, looking for rich tourists to execute live on TV. The mass slaughter that ensues is necessarily bloody and brutal, albeit queasily exciting too – though director and co-writer Anthony Maras finds smart ways to counter the Die Hard-ness of it all in order to make it a celebration of the many selfless staff members who put the safety of others above their own, something that also offers its own comment on the wealth disparity of the country without explicitly addressing its class politics.
Privilege is under the microscope again in Ready or Not, an entertainingly outré horror comedy that takes aim at the one-percenters via a deadly game of hide and seek. The game itself is presented as a harmless initiation ritual for new members of the wealthy Le Domas clan – an old money, blue-blood American family who made their fortune in board games and like to test the mettle of anyone marrying into their inner circle by having them partake in a parlour game of their choosing on their wedding night.
Unluckily for new bride Grace (Samara Weaving), she unwittingly picks hide and seek and finds herself having to fight for her life as her demented in-laws do their best to kill her. Co-starring Adam Brody and Andie MacDowell, what follows is all kinds of grizzly fun, with the hilarious twist-ending the cherry on the top. ■