“So this one is fake.”
“Well, no, it’s only fake if you try to pass it off as an original. This is a reproduction, and not a very good one.”
This is an exchange that takes place between The Goldfinch’s main character, Theo, and a supporting character about 30 minutes into the film, and it unintentionally describes this movie perfectly. The Goldfinch is based off the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, and while I haven’t read it (though my wife has,) it’s clear that the transition from page to screen wasn’t handled properly at all.
The main issue here is that we’re supposed to be following the emotional and tragic life of Theo (jumping between him at the age of 13 when tragedy first strikes, and 21 when the repercussions of this earlier tragedy come to a head) yet there’s just nothing for the audience to truly latch onto when it comes to characters or actions. Oakes Fegley plays Young Theo, and he does a solid job in doing so, as does Ansel Elgort who plays Adult Theo. These two are actually the only reason the film is watchable at its overly hefty two and a half hour runtime.
The story jumps around a lot, and while that may work better in the novel, it just comes off as incredibly disjointed on the screen. I do get what screenwriters Peter Straughan and Donna Tartt, as well as director John Crowley were going for with it artistically, but it just doesn’t work and leads to the viewer having to piece together a puzzle where the pieces just don’t fit together without forcing them to.
Now adapting a novel isn’t easy, and you’re bound to lose quite a bit in the transition; however, for a story like this that seems so dependent on characters, their thoughts and the emotional bond between them, it feels like the adaptation should’ve been handled differently in order to make a film that may not have been exactly like the book, but would’ve still done it justice, or it should have just been left in its original format instead of trying to force it into one where it has to be stripped of everything that makes it special to begin with.
The supporting cast is a strong one, yet they all come off fairly one-dimensional, and while it’s clear that we’re supposed to care about certain relationships that Theo has with them, it just doesn’t happen, as there’s no reason to care about any of them. For me to get into this I need to actually get into what the movie is about, so let’s start with that.
Ignoring the fractured storytelling, the basis of the story begins when Young Theo and his mother visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and during the visit there’s a bombing and Theo’s mother is killed in the blast. He survives because he stays to look at a painting called The Goldfinch because there’s a girl there his age that he seems to be smitten on, which we know thanks to a few blank stares he gives her. His mother goes to look at another painting and is then caught in the blast.
So then Theo is taken in by the Barbours’, the family of an old friend Theo had when he was younger, despite the fact that they haven’t talked in years. Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour, but like everyone else in the movie aside from Theo, there’s just not much to her. You know she feels bad for Theo, but the people around him just don’t feel real. They hit their notes and then we’re already moving on to another flash-forward or flashback before they gain any depth. Mrs. Barbour is basically a rich mother that looks at Theo empathetically for the first part of the film, that’s kind of all that’s given to us because Theo is whisked off by his deadbeat dad who has apparently cleaned himself up from the addict he’d been. That’s how we’re introduced to him, and off to Vegas Theo goes.
So that’s one example of how quickly characters come and go, and while they do often come back into Adult Theo’s life in the future, they’re still just as paper thin when it comes to development, if not worse. Things happen to Adult Theo, such as a relationship with Mrs. Barbour’s daughter that’s so sudden and jarring that, well, by that point it’s actually exactly what the audience should expect, so it’s not overly surprising.
Then there’s Hobie, who’s played by Jeffrey Wright, who’s the character in the quote that began this review talking to Young Theo. He fixes antique furniture and crosses paths with Theo because of the bombing. Young Theo goes to visit him, and it turns out Hobie’s partner, Welty (Robert Joy) was the uncle of the girl who Theo was smitten with at the museum. Welty was killed in the blast, but gave Theo a ring to give to Hobie. Hobie talks to Theo a bit, and then he takes Theo to visit Pippa (young Pippa is played by Aimee Laurence), the girl from the blast who survived but had such a severe head injury that she had to give up music. This is told to us like we should care, but it’s all just so much happening. Like this stranger shows up and Hobie just takes him in and leaves him alone with Pippa. I get he’s a kid, but it’s just odd. Theo sits on her bed, she can’t remember much so she isn’t sure if they were friends and Theo doesn’t say they weren’t. He just sits there and listens to music while she sleeps. Okay, that sounds a bit creepier than it happens on the screen, but it’s still just as odd because the characters are so thin.
Everyone is just so robotic in their motions and Theo seemingly teleports from place to place, as one moment he’s talking to Hobie, and the next he’s back at the Barbour’s looking at a painting alongside Mrs. Barbour, and then he’s back talking to Pippa. It’s just so sloppy and all over the place that even though as a viewer you likely have a rough idea of what’s happening, it’s not engaging in the least.
The only relationship that gains any traction and depth is Young Theo’s relationship with Young Boris (Finn Wolfhard) who he meets in Las Vegas. It’s a bit clearer why they bond, and their relationship grows; however, some of the scenes they’re involved in are just so awkwardly shot that it just takes you out of the moment. There are ways to make an artistic movie artistic without also taking the audience out of it by causing them to go, “Oh, well that was done for artistic reasons.”
Oh, and then there’s The Goldfinch painting, which Theo takes from the museum after the blast. Now we’re supposed to view Theo holding onto this painting as though he’s holding on to a piece of his mother; however, it never comes across like that. During a flashback we see why he took the painting, and that doesn’t connect to his mother at all, and without any spoilers, the overall message the film gives in the end is just, so flat, that unless the character depth truly adds to the story overall, then I can’t see it being overly satisfying in book form either.
Unfortunately for fans of the book (or fortunately, depending on how you view adaptations) The Goldfinch brings neither an engaging story nor engaging characters to the table, and the movie fails because of this. It’s clear that those involved loved the source material, but it feels like they loved it to a fault and the movie suffers because of it. If the story of The Goldfinch ever interested you, then your best bet is to read the book. If you’re in school and have to read the book for an assignment and are looking to get out of some reading by simply watching the movie, well, it’ll be clear to your teacher that you did so, because like this movie, your report will be an incoherent mess that lacks any true depth or heart.
The movie looks fantastic, which also helps those who do want to watch it regardless of the negatives. It’s a clean looking film with strong visuals, and the audio is also up there. In fact, it’s more often than not the story and lack of character that pulls you out of the film over anything on the visual/audio front. Both of these areas do their jobs incredibly well and are simply wasted on a lacklustre film.
The Goldfinch: Unbound – This feature is just under 13-minutes in length and sees the cast and crew talk about the daunting task of adapting such a well-received novel. The actors praise the book for creating characters that jump off the page, though it’s kind of shocking they didn’t realize the same wasn’t happening on the screen. There are also some bits on the casting and locations and the usual behind-the-scenes stuff.
The Real Goldfinch – This feature is just over 8.5 minutes long and sees the cast and crew talking about the real painting that the film is focuses on, as well as how it was replicated for the movie.
Deleted Scenes – As if the movie wasn’t long enough, here’s 17-minutes of deleted scenes for those that wish to delve into them.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Presents The Goldfinch. Directed by: John Crowley. Written by: Peter Straughan, Donna Tartt. Starring: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Finn Wolfhard, Aneurin Barnard. Running time: 150 Minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on Blu-ray: Dec. 3., 2019.
Tags: Ansel Elgort, Finn Wolfhard, jeffrey wright, John Crowley, Luke Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Oakes Fegley, SARAH PAULSON, The Goldfinch