A Weird Non-Linear Film Adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Modern Classic
I saw The Goldfinch movie. The novel by Donna Tartt, on which the movie is based, had a profound emotional impact on me. Though I now wonder, after seeing this movie, if that’s because I read the book on my late mother’s Kindle or because the novel was actually profoundly emotional. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
THE GOLDFINCH ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: John Crowley
Written by: Peter Straughan
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfward
Running time: 149 min
The Goldfinch tells the highly-realistic story of a young man, Theo, who lives in New York with his beautiful mother. Theo gets into trouble for smoking at school. Instead of facing the music and the principal, his mother takes him to an art museum instead. Terrorists bomb the museum, Theo’s mother dies. Through plot machinations, he ends up stealing his mother’s favorite painting. By an obscure Dutch master, this is the goldfinch of the title.
It’s not worth recounting the rest of the plot in case you see the movie, which, based on the fact that the only people in the theater when my wife and I saw it were my wife and I and one other person five rows in front of us, you will not. But know that the cast of The Goldfinch includes Ansel Elgort as an adult Theo, Nicole Kidman, as a frosty society dame who nearly adopts Theo, Luke Wilson, as Theo’s gadabout gambler father, who shows up looking for money, and a smoky Sarah Paulson, who plays Luke Wilson’s girlfriend. Also there is Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things and It, rocking a Russian accent, and Jeffrey Wright, as an antiques restorer who takes Theo under his wing.
The name actors all deliver name performances, with the exception of Elgort, who either stares blankly or weeps copiously. He’s one of the least charismatic film stars of our day. During the scenes in Amsterdam, I kept wishing Ansel would fall into the Amstel.
Ansel Elgort is one of the two main problems with The Goldfinch. The other is that the director and screenwriter decided to tell the story non-linearly. Tartt’s novel begins with a little narration from an adult Theo, but then goes fairly straight from there, with almost no flashing back. The film, perhaps in an attempt to get to the awful Ansel Elgort parts sooner, operates the narrative on multiple timelines.
It lingers on minutae early, but doesn’t pay off that detail work later. You don’t see the terrorist bombing, the book’s most gripping and moving set piece, until toward the end, and then only in fragments. The thrilling crime drama that grips the book’s final third flits by in about five minutes, as the director perhaps realized that we were already at the two-and-half hour mark. At that point, we could have used some grit, but instead all we get are violin music and crying. But there’s already plenty of both in The Goldfinch.
This is all very frustrating because despite its hair-pulling structure problems, The Goldfinch is an extremely faithful adaptation of Tartt’s book. All the characters look and act exactly how she described them. The locales are on-point, and beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, including a longish section set in a disturbingly foreclosed housing complex on the edge of Las Vegas. The script even takes time to explain the mechanics of furniture restoration. But not, apparently, to show an exciting chase scene through the streets of Amsterdam.
The Goldfinch falls prey to the Memento effect, or the Interstellar effect, where every movie has to be a puzzle box. Except that The Goldfinch’s puzzle unfolds perfectly the way that Tartt tells it; the way the filmmakers structure the story takes away from the book’s profound emotional impact and plot surprises, leaving us with empty emotion, and no impact. I doubt my dear departed mother would have liked it much. This movie tarnishes my memory of how The Goldfinch, the novel, helped me grieve her tragic death. For that reason, I liked it even less than I might have.
This concludes my review of the The Goldfinch movie.