The Goldfinch‘s Strength Relies on the Intangible
The Goldfinch follows Theo Decker and his tragic (a frequently stupid) road to unstable adulthood. When Theo was 13 years old, his mother died in a bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her death leaves Theo temporarily without a guardian. A school friend’s family takes him in while authorities search for his absent father. A dying man’s wish sends Theo in search of an antique shop in order to return an engraved ring left with him for safekeeping. Just as it looks like Theo may be able to settle into a new life, his deadbeat father resurfaces taking him away to live with him. It’s a drastic change and not a good one.
His father is a degenerate alcoholic. The only bright spot of living in Las Vegas is his friendship with Boris a Ukranian teenager with a seemingly endless supply of booze and pills. His life remains drug-fueled and unsettled until a tragedy sends him fleeing back to New York and that antique shop. Eight years later, Theo’s built a life for himself working in that antique shop. But a foolish mistake comes back to haunt him and a chance encounter reconnects him with the family that once took him. It soon becomes obvious that Theo’s world rest on shaky ground as everything swiftly begins to unravel around him. The painting he thought safely in his custody’s been stolen and Theo had no idea.
A Faltering Adaptation
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is about survivor’s guilt, unrequited love, coping, addiction, intimacy, loyalty, love, and pain. It’s a masterful bit of art perfectly content to ravage your emotions and leave you questioning. It’s a turns an easy world to fall into and a convoluted mess of feelings. What it’s not is straightforward or easy. There’s a reason this book won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014.
It’s always a tricky proposition deciding to adapt a book for film. When that book is The Goldfinch, that task becomes more difficult because this story’s strength relies on subtle but deeply complicated relationships. Now, one might think that would be a good thing. But, while the right actor, gifted with an ability to properly embody a complex, angst-riddled personality, can absolutely bring such characters to life it that doesn’t make visually translating the world these people thrive in on the page a given.
This script fails to create an emotional connection between the characters and the themes in play. It’s utterly flat and soulless. There are hints of humor and warmth in the haphazard montages and stiff dialogue but that just drives home the point that what happens on screen is deliberate neglect.
The Visual Landscape Pulls the Right Pieces Together
As far as bringing The Goldfinch to life visually, Cinematographer Roger Deakins harnesses light, great locations, and atmosphere making magic. His signature techniques give this film such depth. The visual tone his work sets does a large amount (frankly too much) of the work when it comes to creating just the right emotional backdrop when coupled with its score. The costuming and makeup are tasteful and the locations bring something ineffable that mimic the details from the source material. There’s no disconnect between what the scene story needs to convey visually and what the characters should be doing.
The Goldfinch looks gorgeous. But that’s, unfortunately, the last unequivocal praise that can be given to this film.
Wherein, the Space Between the Actors Remains Empty
Director John Crowley’s decision to start this film with what’s so obviously a glimpse of the supposed ending of this story and a disembodied narrator is a mistake. It begins time in the wrong place and fails to set the stage in a way that ever leads to a cohesive story.
The compelling thing about The Goldfinch is what happens between the people Theo’s forged relationships with, encounters as he attempts to keep it together or suffer as a result of the mess he’s making of his life. Theo didn’t just get caught in the blast at the Met, he lost his beloved mother and he stole a priceless work of art before the dust settled. At the heart is why he’d do such a thing and the path that decision throws his life onto from that point forward.
The larger narrative is there…barely. The themes that provoked and moved are there but Theo’s story is only as interesting as the people he meets and the byplay and relationship dynamics that flow through it all. so much wasted opportunity and talent make it painful to watch what could’ve been a gut-wrenching tale of a young man unable to cope with loss and so afraid of being abandoned he destroys himself. Ansel Elgort’s adult Theo is stiff and fails to carry forward any of the work young Theo put in to build emotional connections. It’s not entirely his fault though, this script is a meandering pile of flashbacks, poor decisions, and emptiness. The story takes over 30 minutes to gain momentum but its hardly time well spent.
One standout amidst the wreckage is Jeffery Wright’s performance is fragile, noble and at its understated best elevating a shallow portrayal of a complicated man. But not even his steadying presence can save this convoluted trip to nowhere.
In the end, Crowley’s The Goldfinch is a pretty, but hollow, shell of itself because every relationship barely skims the surface of the dynamic in play and has all the emotional warmth of a corpse. This film mishandles this narrative so much it makes me want to cry at the lost opportunities…and there were just so many.