Of all the critics who have reviewed John Crowley’s “The Goldfinch,” I may be both the least and most qualified.
I have never read the Donna Tartt novel on which the film is based and can thus provide no thoughts on how the film measures up in comparison. (Based on other critics’ reviews and a 24% Rotten Tomatoes score, my guess is that the film probably doesn’t hold a candle to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book.)
But, while I can’t comment on the film’s fidelity to Tartt’s novel, I think that having little knowledge of the source material allows me to judge the film on its own merits. Whether or not the film works as an adaptation, the real question is whether it works as a film.
The answer to that question is “Sort of.” The film is certainly well-mounted – gorgeous to look at and well-acted by old pros like Jeffrey Wright and Nicole Kidman, but the story is as flat and inert as the titular painting.
That story, such as it is, revolves around Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort at different ages), who must be the most unfortunate character this side of the kids from “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” First, his mom is killed in a museum bombing. After a time with a kindly rich family (led by matriarch Kidman), Theo is taken in by his alcoholic gambler father (Luke Wilson) who tries to exploit the child for his own material gain.
In the present day, an adult Theo discovers that his girlfriend is cheating on him. His best friend is exploiting him to finance his life of crime. Theo takes drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and even tries to kill himself.
That’s an awful lot of misfortune to pack into one movie, and my summary only scratches the surface. It’s honestly a little funny how characters will just flippantly mention another misery- say an abusive dad or a death of a young child that involved both mental illness and a boating accident.
All of this starts to strain credulity after a while and will make you wonder just how many misfortunes can happen to one 20-something adult. But the real problem with the script by Peter Straughan is how little autonomy Theo is given. Rather than having the lead character drive the plot, the plot just seems to happen to poor Theo. He is sent from one place to another for two-and-a-half hours, and then the story ends.
Honestly, I was never entirely clear on why Theo’s story was being told in the first place. As a character, he is not terribly interesting, and Elgort’s flat performance doesn’t help matters. The plot is just a series of events, one after another, that is never tied together with any sort of overarching meaning or even a particularly compelling resolution.
This kind of haphazard plotting is especially tiresome when spread out over two-and-a-half hours. This is the only novel adaptation I’ve seen where I wondered, midway through the film, whether it might be quicker (not to mention more fun) to just read the 800-page book.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some nice moments, largely courtesy of the performers. Kidman, as always, gives her all and finds nuance in a script that doesn’t provide it for her. The same goes for Wright, playing a furniture dealer who takes Theo in and teaches him his trade.
Fegley finds the heart of the Theo character that Elgort never quite reaches. Aneurin Barnard, as a Ukrainian immigrant friend of Theo, is a hoot.
Two-time Academy-Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins is behind the camera, which helps give the film a polish it might otherwise lack.
But competent work both in front of and behind the camera can’t disguise the fact that the script of “The Goldfinch” (rated R for drug use and language) is kind of a dreary, dull mess and won’t really inspire anyone to read the book.
If the novel of “The Goldfinch” can be compared to an original painting hanging in the Metropolitan Museum, the film can be compared to those little souvenir paintings you can find in the gift shop: It’s less actual art and more a pale imitation of it.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.