John Crowley’s adaptation of The Goldfinch was almost destined to come up short no matter how you slice it. Donna Tartt’s 2013 critical-darling of a novel would top book lists and sweep awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Tartt’s story of a young man’s whose life is turned upside-down after a tragic act of violence is one of interesting twists and unlikely turns, making it a real page-turner.
But how does that add up in a big screen outing?
Director: John Crowley
Release Date: September 13, 2019
The Goldfinch follows Theo in his present (Ansel Elgort), a young man of privilege in New York who harbors a deep mystery. Through a blend of the present and the past, we learn of Theo’s past as a boy (Oakes Fegley), where his mother was killed next to him in a bombing at the Met Gallery. Amidst the rubble, Theo staggers to his feet, prompted by a dazed and dying man to pick up The Goldfinch, a remarkable painting surviving among the ashes. Out of his head perhaps, the young Theo snatches the painting, escaping with it amidst the confusion. Only, he doesn’t give it back.
Eventually falling in as an orphan with a posh metropolitan family, headed by matriarch Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman), Theo comes across a wide cast of characters, from a gentle antique-dealer (Jeffrey Wright) to a young Ukrainian classmate (Finn Wolfhard) after Theo relocates to the desolate South West with his slick shyster of a father (Luke Wilson). The Goldfinch throws a lot of subplots at you, that’s for sure.
As one unfamiliar with Tartt’s novel the premise of The Goldfinch was an intriguing one, with Theo’s act of theft easily chalked up to his state of confusion after such a traumatic incident. The story quickly becomes a lie lived by Theo in front of the world, with the titular painting deemed lost in the accident, while Theo is too far in to call it quits now, more than a decade later. It becomes clear that the painting is also his last link to his mother, whom he loved dearly. Almost kept a child by the trauma, Ansel Elgort holds down his emotive scenes well, though the real star is in the dual-casting of Elgort as the matured Theo, while Oakes Fegley portrays the past. Their likenesses are remarkably similar, and they affect the same mannerisms and tone well. Though that tone might be… dry?
We get all sorts of diverse characters that form the odyssey through which we follow Theo, yet for what feel like fleeting moments alongside the roster, we don’t get enough of these relationships to have them feel important. We even get hints of Theo’s sexuality, his development and self-discovery, though this is cast to the side as the film realizes it can’t dawdle too much on pure character-development for its narrative thrust. Yet, for a story that revolves around one character’s inner turmoil, you’d think maybe it’d be best to dwell on character..?
I mention The Goldfinch‘s subplots, which, truth be told, add up to the driving narrative in a clever way. Yet this can’t be attributed to screenwriter Peter Straughan’s script, which feels to be cutting corners where Tartt’s novel was likely more expansive, given its length of more than 700 pages and the omniscient nature of the literary medium. To its credit, Crowley’s scenes often feel downplayed in a good way, with characters broaching subjects to each other, the focus of the scene, in a casual manner, not bent on exposition that would be provided were we reading the novel, and Theo’s thoughts.
Case in point, “Hobie,” the antique dealer played by Jeffrey Wright who takes Theo under his wing, introduces two chairs before Theo, prodding him to judge silently. He doesn’t ask “Which is the reproduction?,” instead playing the scene very naturally, allowing the audience to understand as Theo understands. The direction here is subtle, yet Hobie’s lesson on the value of a reproduction (the term “fake” dismissed by the characters) has an interestingly-meta connotation in discussing The Goldfinch‘s adaptation.
By the time I had some 40 minutes left to The Goldfinch (which clocks in at 149 minutes) I was a little underwhelmed. Where are we going with this, I wondered to myself as the dominoes started to fall. Only, for the constant editing of past and present, relationships with characters picked up here and there, it never feels as if The Goldfinch is building towards something, making its literary roots apparent. You get the feeling that the praise for Tartt’s novel stems from her prose, and the dreamy aesthetic that the narrative takes on. Meanwhile the craft behind The Goldfinch in filmic form feels largely pedestrian.
Master cinematographer Roger Deakins is shooting, though not given much to work with. You see clearly his skill in how reflections bounce off of Theo’s glasses, or light hits the rooms of the Barbour home, but our frames are standard-fare. There are no grand scenes or compositions in The Goldfinch; nothing to really excite or leave you speechless. The whole affair ends up feeling like a student’s uninterested book report of a great novel.
Which is a shame, because besides some patches of downright-laughable acting from some relatively-minor supporting characters, there’s not much of The Goldfinch that’s bad, exactly. It simply feels incomplete, like an abridged version or a casual-retelling. It feels like a Hallmark movie, which certainly seems beneath a literary work of such esteem.
To say that I enjoyed The Goldfinch might perhaps be heaping too much praise upon it, my attention held more by the story at its core than the way in which I was being told it. Tartt’s novel might just be good enough to survive messy amputation in being adapted to the big screen, though that doesn’t mean that the resultant is a grand work in itself. If anything, The Goldfinch plays as a decent advertisement and incentive; “those interested, maybe pick up the book instead?”