Ambitious and undeniably gorgeous to look at, The Goldfinch is a sprawling mess that never finds the rhythm it needs to really come alive as a film.
Adapting Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is no small task. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (published in 2013) spans 784 pages as it follows the unwieldy life and times of one Theodore "Theo" Decker. But it's much more than just its length; The Goldfinch deals in cosmic coincidences and dramatic twists of fate as it examines loss, trauma, guilt, survival, love, and how the fragility of human existence gives art its meaning. In other words, screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and director John Crowley (Brooklyn) had their work cut out for them from the minute they agreed to try anyway. Ambitious and undeniably gorgeous to look at, The Goldfinch is a sprawling mess that never finds the rhythm it needs to really come alive as a film.
Like its source material, The Goldfinch focuses on two key periods in Theo's life. In the first, he's a thirteen-year old boy (Oakes Fegley) reeling from the death of his mother, who was killed in a terrorist bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The second takes place eight years later, as Theo (now Ansel Elgort) makes his living selling antiques. In an attempt to condense Tartt's original novel, the film moves in a nonlinear fashion, jumping back and forth between these points in time over the course of nearly two and a half hours. This is where The Goldfinch begins to run into trouble; there's typically little apparent logic to its impressionist approach, making it unclear why its plot abruptly transitions from the past to the future (and vice versa) in this manner.
Theoretically, The Goldfinch has the right idea. It's a story about how the past controls us in almost phantasmic ways, so it only seems reasonable for the film to play around with time. But in doing so this way, it makes the fortuitous encounters that pepper Theo's journey in the original book feel all the more contrived and artificial on the big screen. It also leaves The Goldfinch with little time to commit to really exploring any one of Theo's relationships, be it with Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman), the rich socialite who takes him in after his mother's death, or James "Hobie" Hobart (Jeffrey Wright), the antiques craftsman who becomes his mentor. Through no fault of these actors, Theo's interactions with his parental figures end up ringing tragically hollow for it.
Theo's "romantic" obsession with Pippa (played by Ashleigh Cummings as an adult), the girl who also survived the Metropolitan bombing, and engagement to Samantha's daughter Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald) are meant to feel empty by comparison. Still, the supporting characters in The Goldfinch seem like they're competing for screen time, with limited space to go around. That's especially the case in the scenes with Theo's addiction-riddled father Larry (Luke Wilson) and his girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), as well as young Boris Pavlikovsky (Finn Wolfhard), the son of an Ukrainian émigré who becomes Theo's closest friend. This is also where The Goldfinch borders on becoming mawkish and exploitive, as it races on through moments of teen disaffection, emotional and physical abuse, and unfulfilled queer romance that ought to leave a far more lasting impression than they do.
There's certainly something admirable about The Goldfinch and its meticulously detail-oriented storytelling, even if its big swings and attempts to cram so much of Tartt's original book into a more concise package never fully pan out. The movie's visuals are equally dense in texture and tones, but far more cohesive in their construction thanks to its legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The Goldfinch can be reminiscent of Deakins' previous work at times (its use of darkness and light bring his efforts on Sicario to mind), but is otherwise seamless in the way it merges Theo's haunting flashbacks to the day of the museum bombing with its sublimely chilly vision of New York, and the loneliness of Las Vegas (where Larry and Xandra reside). For extended stretches, it could almost work as a silent film.
In fairness, most of the complaints one could raise about The Goldfinch have already been leveled against Tartt's original novel (which, despite winning a Pulitzer, was and remains somewhat polarizing). The film's muddled remixing of the story's chronology and push to cover as many plot points from the book as possible simply compound these issues - to the point where it's hard to tell what the movie is even trying to be about. But again, The Goldfinch deserves respect for tackling such a daunting challenge with sincerity and high artistry, even if its so-called Dickensian narrative and metaphors (including, yes, the titular painting that Theo "steals") are clumsier here than on the printed page. For those who adore Tartt's book, this flawed reinterpretation might be enough for the very same reasons.
The Goldfinch is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 149 minutes long and is rated R for drug use and language.
- The Goldfinch (2019) release date: Sep 13, 2019