The Goldfinch provides a classic example of the challenges present in condensing a large sprawling novel into a single two and a half hour film. The novels complexity ultimately failing in the translation to the screen. While in turn creating a frustrating and disappointing film. With the films solid performances and beautiful cinematography drowned out by a three act structure that feels lost in its own narrative.
Switching between the adult Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort) and his early teenage life. The Goldfinch spans a 14 year period alongside the journey from teenager to young man. A journey where Theo is haunted by the death of his mother at the age of 13 in a terrorist bombing at a city art gallery. The final painting they both looked at being Carel Fabritius’s 1654 masterpiece ‘The Goldfinch‘.
Following the terrorist explosion young Theo (Oakes Fegley) walks among the dust, rubble and bodies. Finding and helping a dying man whose daughter he had been drawn to in the gallery before calm descended into horror. The dying man entrusting a ring to his care, asking him to return it to an address in the city. While young Theo noticing the painting of The Goldfinch in the dust, impulsively takes it. Carefully placing it in his backpack as he stumbles from the building into the light.
Following the disaster, Theo is at first taken in by his close friend’s mother (Nicole Kidman). His life haunted by the death of his own mother, while gifted with the opportunities of wealth and security the Barbour family offer. While his stolen treasure is kept wrapped and hidden; the final memories of his mother held in the form of a priceless painting. Meanwhile, on returning the ring given to him to the address given. Theo builds a relationship with the business partner of the man who died in the bombing. An antique dealer named Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), who duly schools Theo in all things antique. Not only becoming a father figure to the young boy, but also allowing Theo to reconnect with young girl from the art gallery bombing. Who lays recovering from her ordeal above the antique shop.
However, Theo’s life is thrown into further confusions on the arrival of his money grabbing and alcoholic father (Luke Wilson). A return that leads the young boy from the comfort of the city to a remote and run down estate on the edge of Las Vegas. His father intent on using Theo and his mother’s money too further his gambling addiction. Its is here that young Theo meets a fellow outsider from Ukraine named Boris (Finn Wolfhard). Their friendship developing in a fog of alcohol, drugs and unrequited love. However, on the death of his father, Theo decides to run back to the city, finding his home in the antique shop with Hobie his surrogate father.
Adult Theo hides behind a veneer of affluence, his drug taking and vulnerability hidden from public view. His life never having recovered from the trauma of his youth. While the priceless painting still lays wrapped and hidden from public knowledge. However, on a chance encounter with his old friend Boris (Aneurin Barnard) in a city bar, unspoken secrets are revealed. With Theo’s life facing danger; the painting at its heart.
The Goldfinch is not a complete disaster, with moments of pure cinematic beauty coupled with a highly talented cast. The film bathed in the beautiful cinematography of Roger Deakins, each scene exuding style and class.
However deep seated structural problems lie at the heart of the overwhelming disappointment it creates. With a first act that is a resounding mess in construction. With scenes haphazardly joined together while nuggets from the novel are thrown into the mix with little explanation. Equally problematic is John Crowley’s direction, which finds itself at sea among a range of ideas and themes. His cast jumping from one concept to the next in a manner that only the most patient of audiences will tolerate. By act two things move into a more mainstream coming of age tale. The relationship between the teenage Theo and Boris taking centre stage. However, once again while beautiful in vision and performance, the narrative feels decidedly rushed. While lacking any emotional connection to the characters and their journey. Especially in relation to the boys isolation, burgeoning sexuality and need for stability.
As we enter the final act the need to wrap things up is clear. However, with so many story elements converging, The Goldfinch never manages to do justice to the themes it creates. While the cast work desperately to create the emotion connection the finale deserves. The energy, fear and personal turmoil of Theo’s reunification with Boris feeling flat and void of any meaning.
The Goldfinch was a highly complex novel built on the inner turmoil and feelings of young man over 14 years. Those inner feelings transferring to the readers imagination. However, the truth is that the book simply doesn’t translate well to film. With a TV mini series probably the best option in enabling the Dickensian story to truly shine. Due to this it is difficult to place any blame for the messy final result with any one production factor. However, storyboarding of the film prior to production should have raised significant concerns, as should the editing process and any pre-release screenings.
Our greatest concern at the failure of The Goldfinch to translate to the screen lies within mainstream studios sanctioning future projects. In a world where studio film making has become more and more concerned with franchise success. Meaning that the failure of The Goldfinch may only further diminish any risk taking in bringing literature to cinema audiences. While equally strengthening the hand of TV in being the place where novels come to the screen.
Director: John Crowley
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman
United States 2019