On paper, The Goldfinch seemed like it would be a critical darling. The film is directed by John Crowley, who has already won critical praise with his last film Brooklyn; the screenwriter, Peter Straughan, worked on another critical darling, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the film itself was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Donna Tartt.
On top of that, it has a very impressive cast that includes Ansel Elgort, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson and more. This sounds like it should be a winner with critics and in the running for many awards. Yet, the film falls flat at being a heartfelt and emotional drama—instead coming off as disingenuous Oscar bait.
So what went wrong?
The Goldfinch focuses on the turbulent life of Theo Decker, who is played by Oakes Fegley as a teenager and Ansel Elgort as an adult. His mother was killed in a bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In a panic, he grabs the titular painting “The Goldfinch” from the debris and is given instructions to go to an antiques shop. While there, he befriends a girl named Pippa who was also injured in the accident. While in New York, Theo stays with the Barbour family with the matriarch being played by Nicole Kidman. His life eventually goes in various directions all because of this stolen painting.
What I just described is a basic summary of the first half hour of the movie. If you were to go into this movie having not read the book, it would be very easy to get lost in early scenes. The movie dumps young Theo at the Barbour household after the opening titles and instead of showing the explosion, it is explained to us how he showed up at the their home. The book dedicates a couple of chapters to Theo in the museum and the immediate aftermath of the bombing—a movie shouldn’t rely on you having read the book to understand what’s going on, as doing so would alienate a good chunk of the audience.
On top of its lack of explanations, the film also lacks focus. Partway through the film, Theo’s dad comes by to take the boy to Las Vegas with his girlfriend. By now we’ve already seen him adjust to life in the aftermath of the bombing, and now we’ve got to watch him readjust himself following a big move. At school, he becomes friends with a Ukrainian kid named Boris (Finn Wolfhard). Their friendship is one of the few things I liked about the movie. Later on, Theo wants to run away back to New York and asks Boris to come with him. When Boris stays behind, Theo shows up at Hobie’s doorstep once again.
By this point, the film jumps to Theo as an adult played by Ansel Elgort. Theo has now become Hobie’s business partner in dealing antiques, some authentic and some fake. He reconnects with certain members of the Barbour family and stays in touch with Pippa. Theo is also dealing with drug and alcohol addiction which was prompted by his friend Boris, who he also runs into as an adult. By this point, you may be wondering, “What about that painting? How does that come into play?” For a plot device that the story tries to pawn off as important, the painting never really comes into play until the last half hour. I know it’s supposed to be a symbol of Theo’s last memories of his mother, but it becomes very easy to forget that all of these events happen over a painting.
Is there anything worth salvaging from this? A couple things are, believe it or not. The acting from the kids are pretty good. Fegley and Finn Wolfhard, as mentioned before, have good chemistry when they’re together and their friendship felt like the one genuine thing in the movie. And when they meet up again as adults, it really did feel like old friends reuniting after years of being apart. The other actors in the movie are good, but you can tell they’re struggling with a weak script.
The Goldfinch may be the most wasted opportunity of the year. I have no problem with a 149 minute runtime, since the book is almost 800 pages long. But the movie never justifies how long it is. It lacks the focus and emotional depth of Donna Tartt’s novel and tries too hard to have deeper meaning. It all comes off as shallow and manipulative Oscar bait. It’s a shame, really. I loved the book so much and I wanted to like this movie, but it never hit me the same way the book did.