Along with every other avid reader in 2013, I made my way through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The novel received critical acclaim from pretty much every corner of the literary world, winning the esteemed Pulitzer Prize along the way. Being a fan of Tartt’s previous work, I was excited to devour the novel, but in an unexpected twist, I seem to be one of the few who found the book to be a bit, well, meh. Would the big screen adaptation do anything to boost my feelings?
The Goldfinch tells a sweeping generational story of Theodore Decker (Ansel Elgort), a boy whose life is turned upside down when he and his mother are caught up in a bombing at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. With his mother dead and his father temporarily absent, Theo is placed from one home to another, eventually ending up back with his deadbeat dad (Luke Wilson) in Las Vegas. As Theo grows from boy to man, he remains tormented by his past, connected to it by a valuable painting that he impulsively took from the museum on the day of the fatal accident. The narrative follows Theo as he ends up back in New York as the ward of a kind and caring antiques restorer (Jeffery Wright), but the bad life decisions made on his journey begin to catch up with him to dramatic and climactic effect.
Here’s the thing about The Goldfinch. I don’t know how they have done it, but the filmmakers have managed to create a film that feels insufferably long whilst also feeling insufferably rushed. For those who love it, The Goldfinch is a novel about internal struggle and trauma, and how one small childhood action can create a ripple effect all the way into adulthood. For the most part, the film fails to inject any of that deep metaphorical emotion into the story, instead just turning it into some sort of weirdly detached coming of age tale that doesn’t really work at any of its various stages.
Rather than building the story in a linear fashion, the film instead chooses to move back and forth with the narrative, a choice that I feel works against lengthy audience engagement. Having read the book, I already had a clear picture of where the story was going at any time, but I’m not sure how clear or satisfying the film can be for anyone going in blind. Donna Tartt had 800 pages to craft a decades long tale, and in being perhaps a little too faithful to the trajectory of its source material, this adaptation feels like a lifeless, paint by numbers, dare I say even boring fast forward of a much richer original text.
Everything about this film screamed Oscar contender in its run up, from the notable cast to the award winning source material, but for a story that encapsulate so much pain, drama and tension, everything on screen just looks and feels completely flat. Ultimately, The Goldfinch as a finished product is considerably less than the sum of its promising parts.
In the fashion of most generation spanning stories, key characters are portrayed both in childhood and adulthood. We spent considerable amounts of time with both Ansel Elgort and Oakes Fegley as adult Theo and child Theo respectively, neither of them making any kind of impact to be perfectly honest. Maybe I’ll throw the duo a bone and say that perhaps Theo as a character isn’t the most arresting, but neither Elgort nor Fegley take their opportunities to shine in my opinion.
Trendy child star of the moment Finn Wolfhard plays the childhood version of Boris, a peculiar and consequential friend that Theo makes in Las Vegas. I’ve always enjoyed watching Wolfhard but I have to say his performance borders on parody here, battling with a suspect Ukrainian accent and a grating ‘mature for my age’ personality. The character is thankfully calmed down and redeemed by the always brilliant Aneurin Barnard in the adulthood sequences.
As Samantha Barbour, the matriarch of the wealthy Manhattan family that briefly takes Theo in, Nicole Kidman does her best to bring something of note to the film. Kidman has a special talent for playing aggressively reserved, pinched characters, and that talent is on full show here with an all important glimpse of warmth towards Theo when it’s needed. More of Kidman would have been nice, but I’m not going to pretend like it would have fixed everything that is wrong with the film.
Overall, the consensus I have to come to is that The Goldfinch is a dull adaptation of a novel that I feel was massively overrated in the first place. The story to begin with is a somewhat strange mixture of coming of age and crime drama, and the film never gets to grips with its core themes in any kind of engaging way. Some people will say that the themes and messages of the novel are perhaps too rich and complex to portray in a two and a half hour film, I’m tempted to just write it off as a boring, tonally messy non-event.