Updated: Jul 12, 2021
Not every book is ripe for a big-screen adaptation. Even highly respected works need just the right approach or they could lose what made people fall in love with them on the page. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, published in 2013, was on many “best of the year” lists and won several awards, most notably the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a 784-page story following a young man through twenty years of tragedy, love and drugs. Obviously, some things had to get cut to fit its 142 minute runtime (without the end credits). I have not read the book, though, from my limited research, it seems what they chose to cut was character and emotion. The focus was supposedly on the protagonist’s personal journey and the effect those he meets have on him. Here, everything is sacrificed in favor of plot. It is a handsome production, perfect for the awards bait it was likely intended as. It is also cold and distant. Despite a strong performance and a handful of decent scenes, this was a challenge to sit through.
The inciting incident in Theo’s life came when his mother was killed in a terrorist bombing during a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. The movie watches as he gets taken in by a friend’s family, moves away with his absentee father and begins working at an antiques shop. There is a lot going on, but they just become a list of things. They are important because they happen to Theo. However, he comes off as a bystander in his own story, someone difficult to connect with because the movie is too busy jumping from event to event.
The element meant to tie things together is the titular painting, Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch.” Theo snuck it out when he left the museum. He keeps it with him on all his travels, tightly wrapped so nobody knows what he has done, as a link to everything he has lost. So much significance is placed on it, but it only feels essential due to the screenplay saying it is. There is no attempt whatsoever to get inside Theo's psyche (his narration is absolutely no help). When The Goldfinch, finally does get around to revealing the reason for his attachment to it, it comes off as overly literal and anticlimactic. I can see many ways its story could be connected to Theo’s via metaphor (the same goes for his interest in antique furniture). In this version, it is another unengaging piece of the plot.
Since character has been ignored, a solid cast is stranded with distressingly little to do. Ansel Elgort struggles mightily as the adult Theo. His motives and desires are never explored, so all Elgort can do is stand around reciting dialogue. Actors as talented as Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson and Finn Wolfhard are equally wasted as people in Theo’s orbit. Each of their purposes is obvious as soon as they are introduced. They have no real chance to make their characters more than ideas. Jeffrey Wright, naturally likable, does okay as the owner of the antiques shop. Ultimately, his big moments are as empty as everyone else’s.
The only actor who makes an impact is fourteen year-old Oakes Fegley as the young Theo. He benefits from appearing in the half where Theo gets to be more active. The emotions are at their highest and he takes advantage, crafting a smart, sensitive kid, who is shell-shocked by trauma. While I could not get myself to care about what happened to him, I was impressed by the restraint Fegley displayed in showing what he was experiencing.
The Goldfinch proves even much beloved material can be adapted by skilled filmmakers into a lifeless bore (it was directed by John Crowley, director of 2016 Best Picture Oscar nominee Brooklyn, and the screenwriter was Peter Straughan, a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominee in 2014 for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Perhaps they missed the aspects of the book that captivated readers? Or maybe translating it to the screen was too large of a task? Either way, it never clicks. It just sits there, a complicated plot without the passion to make it come alive.
2 out of 5
Oakes Fegley as Young Theo Decker
Ansel Elgort as Adult Theo Decker
Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Barbour
Jeffrey Wright as Hobie
Finn Wolfhard as Young Boris
Aneurin Barnard as Adult Boris
Luke Wilson as Larry
Sarah Paulson as Xandra
Ashleigh Cummings as Adult Pippa
Willa Fitzgerald as Adult Kitsey Barbour
Directed by John Crowley
Screenplay by Peter Straughan