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Paints a Confusing Picture

Ansel Elgort
Ansel Elgort
Warner Brothers
 149 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByJohn Crowley
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman
The Goldfinch

Adapting a complex, sprawling novel to the screen has always been difficult and often results in complex, sprawling movies. Gone with the Wind (almost 1,000 pages) and Doctor Zhivago (700 pages) became four-hour films. The producers of Stephen King’s It (over 1,000 pages) didn’t even try to condense the material into one movie and wound up, instead, with nearly five hours of content in two films. The Goldfinch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, is almost 800 pages long, but screenwriter Peter Straughan managed to condense it down to a 150-minute film. Unfortunately, in so doing, he threw the baby out with the bathwater.


Both the movie and the book tell a story revolving around the disappearance of an actual well-known painting dating from 1654, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. In real life, the picture has been on display in the Netherlands since the 19th century. However, in the movie, it is part of an exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. A 13-year-old boy, Theo Decker (played by Oakes Fegley as a boy and Ansel Elgort as a young man) accompanies his mother to the exhibit. Theo’s life is torn apart when a terrorist bomb goes off in the museum, killing his mother and many others. Theo gets two new possessions in the aftermath of the explosion: a ring given to him by a dying man standing next to him when the bomb went off, and the painting of The Goldfinch, which he puts in his backpack before leaving the museum.


After the explosion, Theo goes to live with the family of his classmate, Andy. He tracks down the owner of the ring, who was a partner in an antique shop. Theo befriends the man’s partner, Hobie (Jeffrey Wright). He also meets, and falls in love with, the dead man’s niece Pippa (Aimee Laurence as a child, Ashleigh Cummings as an adult), who is recuperating from her injuries. Theo’s relationship with them and the family that took him in after the explosion is cut short when his estranged father Larry (Luke Wilson) shows up in New York and takes Theo to live with him in Las Vegas.


Theo’s life in Las Vegas proves to be rather miserable, as Larry is heavily in debt to loan sharks and gone much of the time. The boy befriends one of his classmates, Boris (played by Finn Wolfhard as a boy and Aneurin Barnard as an adult). Boris, son of a Ukrainian immigrant, is also alone most of the time, and his father is abusive to boot. Boris does introduce Theo to the joys of marijuana in their free time. But when Larry’s past (and angry mobsters) catch up to him, the now-orphaned Theo runs back to New York and goes to live with Hobie.


Fast forward eight years, and Theo is now Hobie’s partner in the antique business. He’s also acquired a fiancé, Andy’s sister Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald), and a full-blown drug habit. His past sins have come back to haunt him as well, as an unscrupulous art collector (Denis O’Hare) has figured out that Theo took the painting of The Goldfinch and is trying to blackmail the young man into turning it over.


The novel version of The Goldfinch unfolds chronologically, with the entirety of the story of the 13-year-old Theo preceding that of the adult. The movie skips around instead, flashing forward and back several times. Not only that, but the film also flashes back to the events surrounding the bombing several times, each time filling in a bit more of the details of what actually happened. The reasons for this aren’t real clear, other than to give the audience a view of Ansel Elgort much earlier in the film. Indeed, from a dramatic standpoint, the unusual narrative style simply muddles the story. The adult Theo’s story, at least as related in the earlier parts of the movie, is quite confusing.


My guess is that the filmmakers simply didn’t trust a straightforward coming-of-age narrative in which a young man eventually has to confront his past demons. Instead, they tried to turn this into a mystery, with crucial bits and pieces of Theo’s life only being revealed much later, sometimes at the very end of the movie. Both books and movies can undoubtedly use this storytelling technique effectively, but screenwriter Straughan wasn’t up to the task. The entire film feels contrived at times rather than naturally dramatic.


The convoluted narrative of The Goldfinch also serves another purpose, albeit not very well. What got lost in the translation from book to screen wasn’t the major storyline; instead, it was the character detail that explained why various characters, most notably Theo’s mother and Hobie’s dead partner, acted as they did. The book lays all this out; the movie doesn’t. Eventually, we learn why Theo’s mother acted as she did on the last day of her life, but it has far less emotional impact than the same events unfolding in the early pages of the book. The most significant loss in all of this is in the adult Theo. Ansel Elgort is a talented, charismatic young actor, but he comes across here merely as a dabbler who gets in over his head in various shady activities, with the climax of the film resembling the end of a direct-to-video heist thriller.


As in the recent horror film, It Chapter Two (which also featured Finn Wolfhard in a prominent role), the scenes with the younger actors work better that those with their adult counterparts. Much of this is due to the way the script shortchanges the older actors and leaves their motivations up in the air. Still, the fact remains that Wolfhard and Oakes Fegley create memorable characters, and, indeed, their entire storyline is quite compelling. Particularly good is the interplay between young Theo and Andy’s family, notably Nicole Kidman as Andy’s mother, who assumes a more motherly attitude towards Theo. The Goldfinch really tails off when the older actors take over permanently.


When Gone with the Wind was filmed eighty years ago, theatrical motion pictures were the only game in town and the only way for novel adaptations to reach the masses. Now, however, long-form miniseries are routine, and The Goldfinch would have been a prime candidate for such treatment, perhaps even with the same cast. Telling the story in six or eight hours instead of 150 minutes would have allowed screenwriters to flesh out the characters and develop the plot as the book’s author intended. Instead, we get a good looking but somewhat sterile effort, especially when the older Theo should be coming to terms with all the events in his life. The Goldfinch is merely a mediocre artistic rendering on a classic original.

In this featurette, Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard talk about playing the same character.

Read other reviews of The Goldfinch: 

The Goldfinch (2019) on IMDb