The Goldfinch is 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 and journey failing to translate to the screen. Ultimately creating a frustrating and disappointing film. Its 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 and the journey from teenager to young man. 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 Carel Fabritius’s 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch. The bird chained to the post, in a reflection of beauty constrained by imprisonment.
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. It is then that Theo notices the painting of The Goldfinch laying in the dust, impulsively taking the painting, and placing it in his backpack as he stumbles from the building into the light.
Theo is at first taken in by his 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 offers. His stolen treasure kept wrapped and hidden; the final memories of his mother held in the form of a priceless painting. Returning the ring as instructed to an antique shop, Theo builds a relationship with the business partner of the man who died in the bombing. Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) schooling Theo in all things antique, becoming a father figure to the young boy.
However, when his money grabbing and alcoholic father (Luke Wilson) returns to collect him, his young life is thrown into further turmoil. Removed from the comfort of the city and taken 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. In the midst of alcohol, drugs and isolation Theo meets a Ukrainian boy, Boris (Finn Wolfhard). A Boy equally isolated and alone, their lives becoming a mix of experimentation, teenage rebellion and tentative 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. The priceless painting still laying 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.
This is a film where structural problems lie at the heart of its disappointment. Its first act a resounding mess in its construction. Scenes haphazardly joined together with nuggets from the novel thrown into the mix with little explanation. John Crowley’s direction 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, scenes feel rushed. Lacking emotional connection and character building. 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 any of the themes the justice they deserve. Its cast working desperately hard to create emotional connection to the finale with limited opportunity to develop their characters further. The energy, fear and personal turmoil of Theo’s reunification with Boris feeling flat and void of the emotion needed.
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. This is a book that simply doesn’t translate well to film. A TV mini series may have provided 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.
My greatest concern at the failure of The Goldfinch to translate to the screen lies within studios sanctioning future projects. In a world where studio film making has become more and more concerned with franchise and rehash. The failure of The Goldfinch further diminishes the possible risk taking in bringing literature to cinema audiences. While 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