The Goldfinch Review: Lukewarm Book Adaptation Fails to Fly

While it captures some of the melancholy of the acclaimed novel, John Crowley’s adaptation is too leaden and self-serious to really soar.

Oftentimes, people who are unfamiliar with screenwriting will view adaptations as lesser to original screenplays. After all, how hard is it to write a film when the story is already prefabricated? The reality is that taking a story that has been molded specifically for one medium and retooling it to a medium with entirely different needs is a herculean task – one that’s easy to mess up. Director John Crowley (Brooklyn) and screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Snowman) take on the task of bringing Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, to the big screen. The result is a film that has moments of brilliance but doesn’t live up to its source material. 

Fans will be pleased to hear that the film’s plot stays as close to the novel’s convoluted structure as possible. The film starts in Amsterdam, where antique dealer Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver) is going through some sort of crisis in his hotel room. In flashbacks, we see that when he was thirteen, he was the victim of a terrorist attack in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one that killed his mother and left him traumatized. With his father out of the picture, the young Theo (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon) is sent to live with his friends, the Barbours. 

As Theo grows closer to the Barbours, particularly matriarch Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased), he also seeks out Hobie (Jeffrey Wright, Westworld), an antique dealer caring for Pippa (Aimee Laurence), the niece of a fellow victim who was killed during the attack. Obsessed with Pippa, Theo begins helping Hobie restore antiques, using their friendship to get closer to the girl. Unbeknownst to either Hobie or the Barbours, in his shock after the bombing, Theo took a painting (the titular “ Goldfinch”) and hid it in his mother’s apartment. 

Photo: Macall Polay

Just as it seems like the Barbours may adopt Theo, his estranged father (Luke Wilson, Guest of Honor) comes to New York from Las Vegas with the intention of having the boy live with him and his girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson, Glass). Despite his hatred of Las Vegas and his dysfunctional relationship with his father, Theo finds comfort in his friendship with Ukranian emigre Boris (Finn Wolfhard, It). However, when his father dies, Theo runs back to New York, deciding to move in with Hobie. 

As an adult, Theo handles the client side of Hobie’s antique business and is engaged to Kitsey Barbour (Willa Fitzgerald), despite still pining for Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings). His mostly-pleasant life is challenged when a client (Denis O’Hare) reveals his suspicions that Theo has the Goldfinch. To retrieve the painting and return it to the proper authorities, Theo must team up with Boris (Aneurin Barnard, Dunkirk) to journey into the underground world of stolen art. 

As a novel, The Goldfinch has been described as ‘Dickensian’, which is an apt comparison. It’s a bildungsroman filled with events that seem random but come back later. This works for a nearly 800-page novel where the meandering plot can be carried by Tartt’s gorgeous prose, but in a film, it’s more than a little tedious. At two-and-a-half hours, The Goldfinch is both too short and too long. The novel’s plot points are all there, but the film simply can’t go into them with all the depth of the book. The story might have worked better as a limited series, which would have allowed the story to go into full detail without becoming a slog.

The fact that the movie can’t delve too deeply into the plot also means the amazing cast often feels wasted. The biggest tragedy is how little we see of Wilson and Paulson, who play Theo’s abusive and neglectful guardians with just the right amount of scumminess that makes them despicable without veering into Lifetime Movie melodrama. On the opposite side of the guardian spectrum, Wright and Kidman are given much more screen time, although their performances are hindered by the fact that their characters are less interesting. While Kidman does a great job showing a reserved sort of warmth, Wright often feels like a generic father figure. 

At two-and-a-half hours, The Goldfinch is both too short and too long.

While Elgort is the ostensible star of the film (and does a fine job), the real draw of The Goldfinch are the pubescent Fegley and Wolfhard. Fegley, in particular, is superb at subtly showing the effects of Theo’s PSTD, with a scene where he describes his guilt over his mother’s death being particularly moving. Some might find Wolfhard’s wonky Eastern European accent to be a bit corny, but he gives Boris such a magnetic charm that by his final scene it feels completely natural. The pair also have an amazing chemistry that turns the middle of the film into a source of near-constant comedy. The two work so well together that it makes the multiple scenes of middle schoolers drinking, smoking, and snorting Vicodin feel almost wholesome (almost). 

Fittingly for a film that revolves around stolen artwork, the visuals by cinematographer Roger Deakins are astounding. The movie is at its most beautiful when Theo is in Las Vegas, with several shots of sunsets, and isolated deserts. The most arresting scene, visually, is when Theo and Boris are swimming in a pool at night; the pair moving through murky green waters feels almost poetic (though paired with a painfully on-the-nose Thom Yorke song).

Is The Goldfinch a good adaptation of the novel? I would say so, as it follows the story and theme of the book with slavish devotion. Is it a good movie? That’s a bit harder to answer. Despite its captivating performances and artistic-in-a-commercial-way cinematography, the film’s quality doesn’t transcend “decent”. Perhaps it’s because the story works best in written form, but there’s also an attitude of “Oscar-bait safety” behind it. Everything feels competent, but nothing feels risky or memorable. At 90 minutes, one might be able to forgive this; at 150, reading the book might feel less arduous.

The Goldfinch comes to theaters September 13.    

The Goldfinch Trailer:

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