The Goldfinch was directed by John Crowley (Brooklyn) from a script by Peter Straughan, and is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by author Donna Tartt. It stars Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker, a young boy who is taken in by a wealthy family from the Upper East Side of New York after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After being told where to go by a mysterious stranger just after the explosion takes place, Theo makes his way to a local antique shop, where he begins to grow a passion for authentic, antique furniture, as well as its collection and sale. As Theo grows up and begins to learn the tools of his trade, we begin to learn more about his connection to a mysterious painting entitled “The Goldfinch” that was in the same room he occupied when the explosion took place (the piece itself now missing and presumed destroyed), and what it meant to him. We also come to learn that some dangerous people suspect Theo has the piece, and they will do anything to get a hold of it. With the walls of stability continuously collapsing, and a myriad of other problems closing in around him, Theo must survive life’s onslaughts in whatever way he can, even if it means letting go of the last memory of his mother that he has left. The film also stars Oakes Fegley (as young Theo), Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Willa Fitzgerald, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Ashleigh Cummings, and Aimee Laurence.
Those of you who follow my blog closely enough will have read my piece on my Top 10 Most Anticipated Non-Blockbusters for the Rest of 2019 and noticed that this movie and Ford v Ferrari shared the number 10 spot on that list. I was quite looking forward to this film for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that director John Crowley’s previous film, Brooklyn, was my favorite movie of 2015, an unspeakably moving portrait of love and finding one’s life I continue to be shocked more people haven’t checked out by now. But that wasn’t the only reason I was looking forward to this movie; the trailers for it were equal parts melancholy and reflective, enticing me with every frame, musical beat, and edit they both possessed, teasing something that had the potential to upend the Oscar race before it even began. Even the cast of the film all seemed next to perfect for this kind of project. I mean, Ansel Elgort in a drama about the nature and legacy of art, what it means to people, based off a Pulitzer-winning novel? How could this not be a surefire awards contender? Then again, it didn’t have to be an Oscar contender to be good; after all, Heat, In the Mood for Love, Mean Streets, The Shining, The Searchers, and even Zodiac all have 0 Oscar nominations to their name and are considered some of the greatest films of all time, both within their respective genres and outside of those confines. Even Brooklyn walked away with no wins in 2016, and was nominated in only three categories. Oscar contention notwithstanding, this movie was poised to be John Crowley’s true, large-scale masterpiece. Unfortunately, The Goldfinch, while not a total loss, is an absolute disaster of a film that can’t seem to break free of its nest, until it does…and plummets straight to the ground.
It saddened me to no end to write the final sentence of the paragraph above, because The Goldfinch has all the marks of what it takes to make a great movie, on paper at least. The problems really arise when we attempt to dive into the story, the whole point of it all. I haven’t read the novel myself (though I do own it), but I sincerely doubt anyone who has is going to walk out of this movie with a smile on their faces, because frankly, there doesn’t seem to be a story here except as it is alluded to in the margins of its own self-aggrandizing. Typing the first paragraph in this review was a chore after only the second sentence; as I reflected on what I saw, I found myself unable to write a plot synopsis for a movie that doesn’t seem to have much of a central plot, or really any plot that goes anywhere for more than a few minutes at a time. The film spends over half its time on young Theo just living life, with splices of the older in between, and while it takes you through what more-or-less amounts to what I think is supposed to be a character journey, we never see Theo act any differently as an adult than he does as a child, so none of it really ends up mattering at all (side note: while the family he stays with is affluent and wealthy, kids don’t talk to adults at the dinner table like these kids do, so it makes the whole thing really jarring when the kids are all speaking to each other like they’re in their 30’s). If anything, adult Theo is more boring than child Theo.
In fact, that’s one of the single largest problems with The Goldfinch that never goes away: nothing the main character does, apart from what ultimately amounts to a shoveled-off side plot, ends up mattering in almost any way. The entire two and a half hours the film drudges its tired feet through is almost entirely composed of people talking in rooms, yet none of these conversations really go anywhere towards the development of character or whatever the narrative was supposed to be; they show us who the characters are, but none of them lead to any change for those characters. Likewise, we’re meant to understand that something is going on with Theo and the “Goldfinch” painting (something the trailers all-too-easily spoiled with ecstasy), but the only times he interacts with it are when the plot needs to remind us that it’s there so the story can have a title that also doesn’t end up mattering at all. They sure are lucky they got a near-perfect cast to play all these characters, because they’re the only thing holding the film in place, on a branch just above the ground, begging to snap at any moment under the weight of a movie that’s never as good as it desperately wants to be. But even admittedly good performances can’t save a movie as under-written (yet simultaneously over-written) as this.
The film is very pretty to look at (which counts for a lot in a primarily visual art medium), and the cinematography by Roger Deakins lends a lot to that, but that seems to be the only mission on The Goldfinch’s mind: look pretty, and do as little as possible. The film wants you to think it’s important art so badly that it never really taps into why art connects with people, and instead forces the audience to sit through two hours of almost nothing happening, only for everything to happen at once right at the very end, and then it only half-resolves its plot regarding the main mystery, where other plot threads are left to float on the desert wind in young Theo’s second hometown. It feels like so much and yet absolutely nothing is happening at the same time, as if all of these threads come from the book, but unlike Brooklyn, Crowley doesn’t really know which ones matters and which ones are better left on the page; the films feels shattered from its original mold into something unfocused and shockingly apathetic for a director of this caliber. There’s a lengthy segment in the film where Jefferey Wright talks to young Theo about how you can tell a piece of furniture is a reproduction, and I can’t think of a more perfect analogy for this film than that it feels like a half-remembered reproduction of something infinitely better that we don’t get to see. All the pieces are there, but they’re only pretending to be the real thing, masquerading across the cinema stage as something you need to see, but soon revealing themselves to be disparate, and unable to form a cohesive whole.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that in adaptations, especially of highly-acclaimed works, some things might have to be taken with a grain of salt because, well, for those who read the book, things are a lot more clear. But I also believe that a film adaptation of any work should be able to stand on its own two feet and tell a compelling story without an audience having to go out and read a nearly 800-page prologue in order to understand what’s supposed to be compelling about it. The Goldfinch doesn’t just fail to soar; it fails to even stand up. I was really looking forward to this one, too. What a shame.
I’m giving “The Goldfinch” a 4.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.