The Goldfinch is a classic example of the pitfalls of condensing an epic, sprawling novel into a single two-and-a-half-hour film. In Crowley’s confused picture, the book’s complexity fails to translate, creating a frustrating, disappointing and disjointed mess that is only briefly saved by a few assured performances and some engaging cinematography.
Following the terrorist bombing of an art gallery, young Theo (Oakes Fegley) walks alone among the dust, rubble and bodies (one of whom is his mother) before helping a dying man whose daughter is still alive in the rubble. This dying man entrusts to Theo’s care a ring before asking him to return it to an address in the city. Theo agrees before noticing the painting of The Goldfinch, which he and his mother had been viewing minutes before the disaster, lying in the dust, impulsively placing it in his rucksack.
Following the disaster, Theo is taken in by his close friend’s mother (Nicole Kidman), where he remains haunted by his mother’s death despite the Barbour family’s wealth and security. Meanwhile, his stolen treasure is kept wrapped and hidden under his bed. Then we have the ring given to Theo, which he returns to the business partner of the deceased man, an antique dealer named Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), who takes Theo under his wing and teaches him about the antiques he cares for, becoming a father figure, while Theo develops a friendship with the man’s young daughter.
However, Theo’s life is further confused by the arrival of his money-grabbing and alcoholic father (Luke Wilson), who whisks him from the comfort of the city to a remote and run-down estate on the edge of Las Vegas. His father intends to use Theo and his mother’s money to further his gambling addiction, and it’s here that Theo meets a fellow outsider from Ukraine named Boris (Finn Wolfhard). The boys develop a close friendship; however, after his father’s death, Theo runs back to the city, finding a home in Hobie’s antique shop. Later, we meet the adult Theo (Ansel Elgort), who hides behind a veneer of affluence, his drug-taking and vulnerability hidden from public view while the priceless painting remains hidden. However, on a chance encounter with his old friend Boris (Aneurin Barnard) in a city bar, the secret of the painting is revealed.
If you feel confused following this synopsis, you won’t be alone, as in attempting to follow the novel, the film becomes a ball of tangled wool. The first 40 minutes of The Goldfinch are a painful, haphazard mess that jumps violently from one scene to the next. However, by the second act, The Goldfinch finds a more stable footing in the budding relationship between Theo and Boris before once again hitting the buffers as we journey forward in time. That does not mean there aren’t glimmers of beauty in Crowley’s film, with Roger Deakins’ sublime cinematography lighting up an otherwise miserable cinemagoing experience. But Crowley’s usually assured direction is absent in this sprawling mess of a movie, and as a result, you may, like me, find yourself begging for the credits to roll.
Director: John Crowley
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman
United States 2019