Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2013 novel, but the idea of adapting such a dense novel for the screen already seemed like a daunting task in and of itself. There’s a lot to admire about the effort that director John Crowley had tried to put into adapting The Goldfinch into a film but it’s also rather apparent how much of this does at all translate well onto the big screen. There’s a great story that could easily have been told from reading Donna Tartt’s novel, but even with John Crowley’s literate directorial approach, there’s so little sense to be found out of what he could churn out from bringing The Goldfinch to the screen. At its long running time, it still feels really slight yet even then you feel like you’re being overloaded with information that won’t ever be leading yourself anywhere. The more it goes on, the more it only becomes confusing, and any trace of meaning that it’s reaching for only results in more jumping around in terms of its structure, adding up to nowhere.
As a young boy, Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley as a child, Ansel Elgort as an adult) was with his mother at a museum. The museum is bombed, but Theo survives, taking with him a painting known as “The Goldfinch.” In the wake of his mother’s death, Theo has been led on a journey that has led him into the world of antique forgery, to finding the love of his life, and even his own coming of age. With a cast that includes many talented names going from Nicole Kidman, Finn Wolfhard, Aneurin Barnard, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright, and Luke Wilson, The Goldfinch never seems to have enough room for most of them because the film’s constant jumping around only ever seems to erase its characters out of the blue, sometimes even to the point you even forgot what sort of purpose did they serve in moving forward Theo’s story than anything. But given as the story spans decades in Theo’s life that have come forth as a result of his possession of The Goldfinch, Crowley’s film adaptation only seems to have put pieces together without even solving the whole puzzle that Donna Tartt’s novel has presented.
The Goldfinch is a beautiful looking film, with the cinematography being almost painterly through the lens of Roger Deakins, but as far as positives can go that seems to be where most of it comes to an end. Like looking at a painting that catches your eye as you wander through a museum, The Goldfinch has those certain moments that still grab you because you can still see that John Crowley is trying his best with whatever he can to evoke a sense of beauty within how one can interpret an artist’s meaning through a still image. But perhaps as a series of moving images it’s easy enough to say that none of this ever seems to work in his favour as it leaves Crowley with the need to continuously throw his viewers off with the film’s meandering structure muddling its own intentions. There’s a fairly straightforward story being told in the book but looking upon how Crowley chooses to adapt it to the screen finds any sense of meaning being obscured, as if he were skimming through the book to bring out the details in a surface level manner.
Among the most common criticisms of The Goldfinch is the notion that seeing a story that spans this many decades being condensed into a feature film gives every detail so little room to breathe. We glimpse over flashbacks of Theo recalling the events of his mother’s death but even these moments feel so devoid of emotional impact too. This should be a powerful moment, because it’s the moment that defines the sort of journey that Theo had brought himself onto. As a matter of fact, given the sort of character that Donna Tartt had created in Theo, it’s hard to pinpoint what would have made such a character out of him because we know already that he’s been through a whole lot after having become a first hand witness to his mother’s death, which led him to his fascination with antiques. But even Hobie’s role feels drastically insignificant in the film, only further boosting Theo’s interest in antiques but to what extent? Aside from Theo, every character aside from Boris feels significant to Theo’s journey in some sense or another – but even Boris disappears from the story for a good chunk of time too. You’re left wondering how these pieces add up but even Crowley can’t seem to assemble them to create any sense of proper structure.
In trying to capture the grandiose of the novel in a feature film that tells of what only comes forth following a traumatic experience, The Goldfinch fumbles even at trying to make those random moments even feel like they mean anything. To a certain degree, it even comes off as exploitative for the sake of cheap tactics of emotional manipulation because it only seems like it can continuously move forward by reminding oneself of what’s happened in Theo’s life prior rather than how it impacted his worldview. But trying to make sense out of the film’s constantly jumping structure only leaves one wondering what even does John Crowley or Peter Straughan actually think of Donna Tartt’s word. There’s so little to be felt out of what Ansel Elgort can bring to the role of Theo because he delivers his part so flatly to the point that it even finds itself becoming a movie killer. I don’t wish to be too hard on Ansel Elgort, because I’m willing to believe that he can actually pull off a great performance with the right material but considering how hard it was to even try and elevate whatever anyone can work around in The Goldfinch, it’s not like any of its actors were at fault – even when many of the best performances such as Paulson and Kidman don’t have much involvement too.
With adapting a novel as dense as The Goldfinch there was always the risk of making it appear as if the source material was being skimmed over rather than explored in any meaningful way. There’s far too much to work around but I do admire the effort of John Crowley to try and make the most of what was possible, even if it also resulted in a confusing mess all throughout. If anything, I’m only left wondering how this would have played out had it been a television miniseries unfolding in chronological order, because as is, trying to find meaning out of what The Goldfinch shows itself out to be would already be difficult enough as is. It isn’t a badly made film in the slightest, and it’s very gorgeous for what it’s worth, but when so many details feel missing, finding the point in all of it could already be a difficult enough task on its own.
Watch the trailer right here.
Images via TIFF.
Directed by John Crowley
Screenplay by Peter Straughan, from the novel by Donna Tartt
Produced by Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson
Starring Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman
Release Date: September 6, 2019 (TIFF), September 13, 2019 (wide)
Running Time: 149 minutes