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Art for art’s sake – ‘The Goldfinch’

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Adapting books to the big screen can be a tricky proposition. The truth is that while many times, a story is a story is a story, regardless of medium, there are some literary works – acclaimed, celebrated works – that resist that sort of translation. Sometimes, filmmakers are able to muscle through that resistance and present a great movie.

Other times, they make “The Goldfinch.”

The film, based on Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, is an undeniably game effort. Everyone involved – director John Crowley, screenwriter Peter Straughan, the talented cast – is clearly giving their all to a project in which they clearly believe very strongly. Unfortunately, the layered, fractured nature of the source text works against them; the end result is a film that is technically well-crafted yet doesn’t cohere. It’s a series of good-looking scenes that never quite click together.

What we have in “The Goldfinch” is essentially an echo of a prestige film, an offering that bears many of the outer indicators of Oscar bait, but is largely devoid of substance once you move beyond those surface trappings. Again – a game and good faith effort, but one that falls short.

When Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley, “Billboard”) was 13, he and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist’s bomb explodes in the building, killing and wounding scores of people. Theo was largely unhurt, but his mother perished in the bombing.

Years later, a now-grown Theo (Ansel Elgort, “Billionaire Boys Club”) is living in the city. He is soft-spoken and well-educated, stylish and sophisticated. He has become a seller of fine antiquities – furniture, mostly – but he can’t shake the shadows of his past, no matter how many methods (chemical and otherwise) he tries.

“The Goldfinch” moves back and forth between the two, but Theo’s all-consuming focus remains the same – the priceless work of art that he took from the wreckage of the museum, a priceless painting from the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius … a painting titled “The Goldfinch.”

Young Theo is brought to the home of the Barbour family; he was once close with their young son Andy (Ryan Foust in his feature debut), but the two had become estranged. Yet the Barbours take him in; Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, TV’s “Big Little Lies”) is initially apprehensive, but soon becomes quite fond of Theo.

Theo also becomes close with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright, TV’s “Westworld”), an antiques restoration expert. They meet because Hobie’s business partner was also at the museum and made a request of Theo that led him to the shared storefront. That’s also where Theo meets Pippa (Aimee Laurence, TV’s “The Path”), a young girl who suffered traumatic injuries the day of the bombing.

Theo’s NYC life is thrown into turmoil when his estranged father Larry (Luke Wilson, “Guest of Honour”) shows up to take him away to Las Vegas, where he’ll live in a slowly crumbling development with his dad and his dad’s girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulsen, “Glass”). His only friend is a Ukrainian boy named Boris (Finn Wolfhard, “It Chapter Two”) who introduces him to alcohol and drugs.

As an adult, Theo works for Hobie as a salesman. A chance encounter reintroduces him to the Barbour family, who are all too happy to welcome him back into the fold. But he still can’t shake the past, and when more and more aspects of bygone times force their way into his present day, it’s all Theo can do to simply hold it together. But there are still tragedies to come. Some great, some small.

I’ll note here that that is one of the longest synopses I’ve ever done for a movie review, yet even with all of that plot, “The Goldfinch” still manages to feel empty. There’s an inertness to it, a sense of stasis that turns the whole proceedings into a bit of a slog. While I recognize that there are challenges to loyally rendering a work like this to film, the reality is that the whole thing feels … off. The pacing is strange, with seemingly vital points explored briefly or not at all, while unimportant moments are covered in-depth and for far too long.

It’s not all bad. There are some strong performances. Elgort, who is rather hit or miss for me, hits on this one; he does a fine job capturing the nervous energy of Theo. Nicole Kidman gives us the kind of stern and slightly chilled Upper East Side mother figure that she was born to play. Jeffrey Wright is awesome because Jeffrey Wright is always awesome. Wilson and Paulsen both go for it in a very satisfying way. The kids are great – Fegley and especially Wolfhard do excellent work.

And again, “The Goldfinch” is a great-looking movie. There’s a dreaminess to the cinematography that suits the storytelling beautifully. There are a handful of legitimately stunning sequences that really highlight the aesthetic choices being made.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the convoluted nature of the narrative. While the book was also fractured, bouncing back and forth in time, the written word allows for a sense of interiority that binds the pieces together more firmly. In the more visual medium, that interiority is lost, leaving a story that has retained all its stylistic complexity but very little of its substance.

“The Goldfinch” has all the pieces you’re looking for in a prestige film. Acclaimed source material, notable filmmakers, top-tier cast – they’re all here. Unfortunately, those pieces are never put together in the right way, and the final product simply doesn’t match the picture on the box. A valiant effort, but one that comes up short.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 September 2019 05:17

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