P ainted in 1654, Carel Fabritius’ masterpiece, The Goldfinch has become an iconic image of the Dutch Golden Age. Housed in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the painting was the starting point for Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. As a major new adaptation of the book arrives in cinemas, Sotheby's Old Master Paintings department, along with Emilie Gordenker, Director of the Mauritshuis, join forces with Warner Bros. Pictures to celebrate this exceptional painting.
The film, which features an ensemble cast led by Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman, and directed by the BAFTA Award-winning director John Crowley, sees the young Theodore Decker fleeing the catastrophic terrorist attack that kills his mother at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the very painting she had brought him to see.
The film is: “an original and moving meditation on grief” says Crowley, who first read Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel like so many us, for pleasure, with no original intention of adapting it. He explains: “Theo is desperately attached to this object and that becomes a replacement for his feelings about his mother, but it’s not just any object; it’s a priceless work of art and the longer he holds onto it, the greater his criminality becomes. It felt like the most brilliant set up for the exploration of guilt, responsibility and also asking what’s important.”
Ahead of a dinner at Sotheby's to celebrate the film's release in UK cinemas, we sat down with director John Crowley, to discuss the making of the film, and the ability for a single work of art to captivate and enthrall…
What was it like for you the first time that you saw the painting in the flesh?
It has an incredible power. The painting seems to glow – like there is a light inside of it and it’s not like anything else I’ve seen. There’s a directness in that the bird is looking at you and you looking back at it which sets up a conversation in your head. After a while staring at it you become absolutely convinced that the bird is breathing and is about to fly. It’s a very powerful piece of art. In lots of ways the film is about learning how to look and what that means and I think that comes directly from the directness of that painting.
"The painting seems to glow – like there is a light inside of it and it’s not like anything else I’ve seen"
Did that help you get into the mind of Theo when thinking about how his character was going to be tied to this object?
It did, and it also gave me the beginnings of the visual aesthetic of how to begin to approach the film.
Can you talk a little bit about the adaptation process? The story spans many different locations and time periods and the painting is the thread that holds it all together. Where do you begin?
The first thing was letting go of Donna’s linear structure and focusing in on two time periods: the immediate aftermath of the bombing and the point in adult Theo’s life when the lies that he’s caught up in are becoming unstitched and he begins to fall apart. By doing that, it allowed us to move back and forth between the past and the present a lot more frequently than you do in the book, and allowed us to suggest the past is sitting on the shoulders of the present a lot more than perhaps the book did.
Let’s talk about the casting process: Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Barbour and Finn Wolfhard as Boris just seem to make complete sense. How do you land on the perfect actor for a role? — do you immediately know who you want to approach?
Casting is always a bit terrifying to be honest, because you’re trusting your intuition. You meet a huge numbers of actors and there might be differing opinions around who’s right and who’s not, but you have to trust your own gut instinct and that of your casting director. Some of the actors that we were cast weren’t all that well-known – we were championing new names which was fabulous, but that can potentially make people very nervous about a film of this size, so it was a really considered process.
How much did you need to immerse yourself in the art world in order to present a faithful representation of Theo’s and Hobie’s world?
It was more about trying to find out what was special about this painting and this specific period of the Dutch art that gave me a certain approach to the film. Walking those locations with our cinematographer Roger Deakins – who’s an incredible visual artist himself – and looking at the lighting in a lot of those Dutch Golden Age paintings gave us the clues for how to visually approach the story, even though it’s a piece of naturalism.
We didn’t ever want frames to look like they were imitating paintings necessarily. Ultimately, what was important is trying to externally express an internal emotional dilemma of that character. For me, that is about trying to work from the inside out, rather than from a singular image, and looking inwards.
The film's cast, alongside Sotheby’s specialists and museum curators, directors and other leading figures from the art world, were all asked to consider the question: “If you could save one artwork from destruction, what would it be?”
Nicole Kidman, who expertly delivers a cool and reserved Mrs. Barbour in the film, explains that she would not be able to save just on piece and resorts to saving a collection from disappearing, whilst Luke Wilson, who plays Theo’s father, would choose a Edward Hopper painting, or one of Francis Bacon’s brooding portrait triptychs of George Dyer. Ansel Elgort chose to save The Sistine Chapel and Sarah Paulson chose Gustav Klimt’s Woman in Gold, with Aneurin Barnard similarly finding it to hard to settle on just one piece, deciding he would save Venice, as he claims: "The whole city is a work of art".
Join the conversation online #OneArtwork
The Goldfinch is released in UK cinemas on 27 September.
With special thanks to Warner Bros. Pictures.