Having not read the book it was based on, I cannot judge The Goldfinch as an adaptation. I can, however, judge it as a film and as a film The Goldfinch is long and monotonous. Not to mention hardly compelling. Even with a cast of talented actors and a cinematographer with some of the best framing experience around, this movie constantly pushes events forward without ever stating why they matter. We’re not so much watching a film as we are seeing the underwhelming bare bones of storytelling: a constant trajectory from point A to point B devoid of substantive arcs.
This is one of the big differences between books and film: film stories need a direct inciting incident to captivate us. Something has to happen in the first ten-fifteen minutes which defines the protagonist’s journey and the choices they make afterward. But Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley as a child, Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort as an adult) seems to be going along with events rather than pursue them with a sense of agency. The present timeline shows a man attempting to kill himself with alcohol and pills; the past shows the aftermath of a boy who tragically lost his mother to a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Conventionally, this loss is supposed to be influencing his future life but we never get a sense of what Theo’s mother meant to him. The Goldfinch doesn’t provide this context until the end and, by the time that mark is reached, a lot has already happened.
Following his mother’s death, Theo is placed in the care of his friend Andy Barbour, whose socialite mother Samantha (Nicole Kidman) does her best to make him comfortable. This adopted family dynamic is merged with him discovering antique store owner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) whom Theo was tasked with finding from an associate also killed in the bombing. The associate’s niece Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings) was also at the museum and, despite getting amnesia from the incident, the two manage to bond. All the while Hobie teaches him a bit about the antique life and distinguishing good art from its clever replicas. It’s briefly sweet and, in most other films or novels, this would be the focal point.
Not in the Goldfinch. Theo is whisked out of this social circle by the return of his deadbeat dad Larry (Luke Wilson, always nice to see again). He’s a recovering alcoholic with financial debts who takes Theo to live with him and his trophy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), and that story goes about as well as you expect. We go from there to adult Theo reunite with Barbour family following personal tragedies, then back to the past to see him befriend Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurin Barnard), a Ukrainian immigrant whose own family problems match Theo’s own. Then back to the future/present again to see Theo in some relationship problems and if that sounds like a ton of story you’re starting to see the problem here.
So much is happening in The Goldfinch and rarely does it ever feel meaningful. Director John Crowley doesn’t so much merge the childhood and adult segments like say, the IT novel, as he layers long consecutive stories after one another. It’s like reading a never-ending character perspective while checking how many pages are left before the next chapter. And I get it: this is based on a book. But events rarely take time to develop Theo or his associates as people, or even as members of his grieving process following a clearly traumatic event. They even show Theo covered in dust from the bombing in a clear parallel to 9/11 imagery. Yet ask me to describe who he is before or even after the loss of a family member and I’m going to draw a blank. That’s not a problem I had with American Woman.
All of this ties back into the titular Goldfinch, a Dutch painting supposedly lost in the museum bombing but, in actuality, was stolen by Theo. It’s supposed to be a metaphor for his grief, loss and cliché “my fault they died” guilt that always follows this type of self-pitying character. But there’s no context on what this painting means until the third act- until then it’s just a painting. He clings to it in secret like a security blanket, as if to remind him of an important memory of his mother. I just wish I knew what that memory was or what the mother was like.
There are the occasional moments where interactions produce a hint of substance. Young Theo’s dynamic with Hobie is empathetic enough to make us believe their surrogate father/son relationship, thanks in part to Wright’s nuanced performance. But easily the most natural relationship was between Theo and Boris. Yes it’s weird seeing Mike from Stranger things with a deep Russian accent, admittedly even a little silly. But you feel these two connecting with one another as outsiders with terrible parental figures and nowhere to go in a nearly foreclosed neighborhood. Boris gets Theo more than most other characters and it makes future reveals about their past and personal feelings more compelling than most of The Goldfinch’s two and a half hour runtime.
I don’t want to knock most of the cast because money was clearly spent on getting these actors and actresses together. And make no mistake: these are talented people. But, even though Oakes Fegley impressed me, few of the big names stood out. Everyone talks in hushed whispers, possibly to match the book’s tone but ultimately making the interactions dreary. This is a shame for actors like Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort, whose talents in Baby Drivercan’t shine underneath the melancholic malaise. Given how one of The Goldfinch’s distributors was Amazon Studios, it’s clear this film was going for the Oscar Bait title.
If I can complement the film on anything, it’s that the aesthetics do match the trailers. Getting Roger Deakins of Shawshank and Blade Runner 2049 fame to run the cinematography means that each shot looks stunning. Just stunning enough that it really hopes you can ignore how stilted everyone sounds while they discuss vacant themes. But good visuals shouldn’t be used as a deflection from story and characterization, especially if you’re pulling directly from the source material.
Verdict: 1 out of 5 Stars
Books aren’t movies and, when adapting a book to the big screen, it’s best not to make the presentation of a movie feel like reading a book. Without a first person narrative, watching The Goldfinch is like trying to piece together a character’s inner thoughts without the dialogue sections. And a story about coping with sadness and grief should be emotionally compelling, rather than hit upon past clichés. The irony isn’t lost: The Goldfinch likely tried to be too faithful an adaption, hindering its ability to stand out on its own merits.