The Goldfinch

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch follows Theo Decker and how he makes his way in the world following a terrorist attack.

The Goldfinch takes a decent stab at bringing Donna Tartt’s award winning novel of tragedy, guilt and love to life, but falls flat as it tells the story of Theo Decker, a boy who finds himself thrown into a world of turmoil, guilt and regret when his mother is suddenly killed in a bomb attack.

Directed by John Crowley (Brooklyn, True Detective) and equipped with big names such as Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman and Luke Wilson, The Goldfinch had high expectations leading up to its release. Donna Tartt’s book has won a series of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and has a strong fanbase after it was introduced to audiences in 2013. Despite the hype behind the story itself and the promising cast, The Goldfinch fails to capture and display the same essence of intrigue and emotion contained in the novel.

The Goldfinch follows the life of young New Yorker, Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley as younger Theo and Ansel Elgort as an adult), as his life is transformed when his mother (Hailey Wist) is killed during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after a terrorist bombing. Awaking from the blast to destruction and chaos, Theo discovers Carel Fabritius’ painting, ‘The Goldfinch’, in the rubble and takes it into his protection. Grief ridden and alone, he ends up living with old friend Andy Barbour (Ryan Foust) and his wealthy family.

Andy’s mother (Nicole Kidman) takes a liking to Theo and welcomes him into their home, even inviting him on their annual summer trip to Maine. Theo also manages to track down Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings), a girl he shared a connection with before the explosion at the museum. Pippa is living temporarily with her deceased uncle’s business partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antique shop owner, who Theo also grows close to following his mother’s death.

Just as Theo’s life starts to regain some normality, his shifty dead-beat Dad, Larry (Luke Wilson) turns up out of the blue, accompanied with his new girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), to take Theo to live with them in Las Vegas. In his new bleak surroundings, with The Goldfinch painting still in his possession, Theo befriends Boris (Finn Wolfhard playing teen Boris and Aneurin Barnard in his later years), a Ukrainian boy who introduces Theo to a life of drinking, smoking and taking drugs, while providing some much-needed companionship.

Following a non-linear structure, the film frequently jumps back and forth between Theo’s childhood and life as an adult. As a grown man, we learn that Theo has returned to New York and works as an antiques dealer at Hobie’s shop and reconnects with people from his past, still carrying the weight of The Goldfinch and trauma of his experiences as a child, which are explored throughout the film.

Despite the success of the novel and the promising cast, the main issue with The Goldfinch is that the book doesn’t provide a narrative which can be easily portrayed onscreen. At almost 800 pages long, the book’s contents of course had to be reduced for the film, but this resulted in a movie that is almost completely driven by the plot with very little substance in between. The film is two and a half hours long and it is clear that the filmmakers have tried to stay as true to the source material as they can but despite its length, the movie feels very jumpy.

Vital plot points are introduced randomly throughout the film without the appropriate background or explanation, so viewers who haven’t read the book may not understand their significance to the story. The order in which certain important elements of the narrative are brought forward seem very confused and they don’t provide the desired impact. For example, Theo has a ring which was given to him by Welty (Pippa’s relative played by Robert Joy) before he died in the explosion, which he returns to Hobie – Welty’s business partner. But the background of the ring is not explained until later, so its importance seems irrelevant and unnecessary for too long.

It is clear the cast are giving it their all in The Goldfinch. Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort do a very convincing job of portraying Theo, while Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright and Aneurin Barnard are all fantastic in their supporting roles. Finn Wolfhard especially brings some much-needed light and comedy to the film as young Boris. Unfortunately, the dialogue from the novel has been chopped so significantly, that the script is left feeling very wooden and the conversations that are had between the characters seem so unnatural. Despite the emotional subject matter, this makes it very hard to understand and sympathise with the characters, in fact, none of them feel like real people at all. The film is very much missing key interactions between characters which lay the foundations for future plot points and relationships.

Poor structure and script aside, it must be noted that the cinematography in The Goldfinch is absolutely beautiful which is no surprise when you discover that Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, Hail Caesar!, Sicario – among many many more) is the DoP for this movie. There are some really fantastic shots, including one where Nicole Kidman’s character, Mrs Barbour, is walking into the distance and her body slowly morphs elegantly into the background which is especially memorable. The sets used in the film are also impressive, in particular during the scenes in dusty Las Vegas where Theo’s feelings of isolation are really well communicated. As a whole, the movie does a great job at bringing The Goldfinch visually to life.

John Crowley had an immense task to complete when he took on The Goldfinch and despite the disappointing final product, it is clear that the filmmakers did their best to adapt the much-loved book and transpose it to the screen. Perhaps it could have worked better as a mini-series which would have allowed the characters and plot points to develop naturally and without rushing elements of the story (or removing them entirely). It is true that some stories work better on the page.

The Goldfinch is released in cinemas on September 27

Olivia Hill

Updated: Sep 27, 2019

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