The Goldfinch is the type of adaptation of a book to movie I dread. Adapted from the Pulitzer award-winning novel by Donna Tartt of the same name, it has the structure and feel of a Wes Anderson movie without the charm or sense of whimsy. Above all, it is pretentious and boring while making it all seem interminable with it’s excruciating run time.
John Crowley is saddled with a horrific script to try and cobble something even remotely salvageable. The script is by Peter Straughan. Straughan also wrote The Snowman; because in Hollywood you fail up. It is not solely Straughan’s fault though as Crowley seems to be reaching for a sort of self-importance only seen during awards season.
I’d try and describe the plot but since it’s from a Pulitzer winning story-it is less than straightforward. The Goldfinch is the type of story where people have names like Hobie and Pippa and no one bats an eye. It does the movie no favors that we are forced to follow a blank slate like Theo (Ansel Elgort).
As a child Theo (Okes Fegley) loses his mother to a terrorist bombing while at a museum. As he stumbles out of the rubble carrying a painting of, you guessed it, The Goldfinch by Carl Fabritius. A painting with a story so fascinating it’s a shame it’s crammed into this snoozefest of film. At its core, this could be considered the plot.
It occurs to me that as I describe the goings on of the rest of the story you might confuse it for something fun and entertaining. I assure it is not. The Goldfinch belongs to a subset of films, like Collateral Beauty, where it is more fun to talk about that to sit through.
Orphaned young Theo is then taken to the Barbours, a well to do family on the upper Westside. The mother, Samantha (Nicole Kidman) takes a liking to the boy. Crowley’s direction aims to be as cold and sterile as possible. The philosophy is you take the emotion out of the scene and let the audience project what they want to feel onto the blank slate.
Kidman excels at these types of vehicles. She can do more with a simple twitch of a cheek muscle than some actors can do with their entire bodies. Were she in a better film I would likely be writing paragraphs about her nuanced performance. Though no matter the craftsmanship and talent of Kidman’s Samantha she is still stuck with Straughhan’s script.
A script that has a scene where the family is gathered around the table for breakfast. By this time we know all the members of the Barbour family and have gotten to known young Theo. It’s a quiet scene that is interrupted by a new character, the eldest son recently returned from college barging in and yelling, “Who do I have to blow to get a cup of coffee around here?”
The brilliant line is then followed by the father, literally hissing at the young man, followed by him slamming his hands onto the table and storming off. We learn later on he is Samantha’s favorite. Somehow I doubt that very much. Not that it matters the eldest son appears later on for one more scene and then vanishes into the ether.
The Goldfinch bounces back and forth in time between the past and the present. It never does so in an interesting manner or in any way unpredictable. We go from Elgort’s Theo a walking, talking literary cliche to Fegley’s Theo; a fidgety, earnest, quiet figure full of love and fear of loss. Fegley’s Theo is a cliche in both film and literature as well but he manages to imbue it with a winsomeness that Elgort’s adult persona lacks.
I haven’t even begun to tell you about Theo being whisked away from the Barbour’s by his dad Larry (Luke Wilson) and his step-mom Xandra (Sarah Paulson). They take poor little Theo from Park Avenue to a developing suburb in Neveda in which they are the only inhabitants. Larry is a recovering alcoholic, or so he says, and Xandra is a gum-chewing, steely-eyed waitress who seems to distrust Theo more than care for him.
The film plods on and on with each new scene leading into something else that either upends Theo’s life or threatens to. Straughan’s dialogue doesn’t exactly help matters. I recognize some of these lines are from the book but combined with Crowley’s stilted direction the words sound “written”. In other words, we sit there in the dark listening to these characters while never believing for a second anyone would ever say this.
For example, during one conversation Theo muses that his dad once told him that “Edgar Allen Poe was the Vincent Price of the literary world.” We should all be so lucky as to be the Vincent Price of our chosen professions. Nonetheless, I still remain unconvinced anyone would say that about Poe-even more to the point after meeting Wison’s Larry I don’t even believe he would say that.
The saving grace of The Goldfinch, one of them anyway, is Boris (Finn Wolfhard). He’s a Ukrainian who’s moved into one of the unsold houses in Theo’s neighborhood along with his father. Wolfhard’s “Moose and Squirrel” accent aside, he nevertheless breathes much-needed life into the dreary lifeless film. “My father is a miner. Everywhere we go people hate us because we turn the land into shit. But here…it’s already shit!”
Boris begins to feel more than friendly towards Theo and though Crowley and Straughan try to downplay it, the queer overtones are unmistakable. Boris is in love with Theo. The last third of The Goldfinch is rescued from its fate as the dullest march into eternity by Aneurin Barnard’s portrayal as grown up Boris.
Barnard’s accent is much more believable, but like Wolfhard, he mirrors Theo’s emotions but without coming off as a pile of wet noodles. Unfortunately, his reemergence into Theo’s life isn’t to spark a gay romp but rather to unveil a third act twist the filmmakers forgot to set up.
Thank god Crowley enlisted the great Roger Deakins to shoot The Goldfinch. Yes, it’s a vapid self-important ode to white privilege but sweet heavens does it look gorgeous. Deakins is a legend among cinematographers, having shot such films as Fargo, Blade Runner 2049, and Skyfall, to name just a few. But his immaculate framing and pristine lighting allow our eyes to graze over such sumptuous shot compositions as if we were looking at a painting ourselves.
The actors try their best to wring some kind of blood from the stone of a script-though some do better than others. Bad movies are long no matter how short they are and The Goldfinch would feel like a five hour David Lean epic even if it was a twenty-minute short.