Donna Tartt's bestselling 2013 novel gets the full on Hollywood treatment with mixed results. A sprawling novel that deals with grief, addiction, camaraderie between young men, the power of art, and many other things is a lot to tackle for a feature film. The Goldfinch is by no means a bad movie, just a diffuse one that never quite hits its stride.
The story follows protagonist Theo Decker, played as a young teenager by Oakes Fegley and as a man in his mid 20s by Ansel Elgort, on a series of Dickensian adventures. While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art Theo's Mom perishes in a terrorist attack. Then he's taken in by a wealthy New York family the Barbours headed by matriarch Nicole Kidman who takes an interest in Theo. When his estranged father (Luke Wilson) enters the picture the story shifts to Las Vegas where Theo forges a close friendship with Boris (Finn Wolfhard). Boris is from Ukraine and leads a chaotic life fueled by alcohol. After some further misadventures, Theo ends up back in New York and becomes a prominent dealer in antiques. At the center of the story of The Goldfinch painting, a 1654 work by Dutch master Carel Fabritius.
A glaring dichotomy between the film and the novel are the richness of the characters. The film limits them to being no more than rough sketches who appear and then vanish. Even with the 150 minute running time the movie feels more like an assortment of scenes loosely connected to each other. One wonders if a mini-series would be a better way to flesh out the story. The emotional high points are never earned, there's too much plotting going on.
Despite the narrative confusion, there are some memorable moments. Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, Theo's ward and mentor, brings a quiet dignity and compassion to his limited screen time. Kidman does the same as she proves to be an unlikely confidante to Theo. Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard as young and older Boris respectively, bring an energy to the film - by far the most compelling character in the story.
Elgort is being groomed to be an A-list star, he'll be the male lead in Spielberg's West Side Story to come out next year, is no more than a cipher. Theo is surrounded by so many characters, his motivations often get lost within all the competing narratives. He never gets a moment to reveal his motivations beyond the obvious. The last act takes place in Amsterdam and becomes a clunky heist film. Not much is resolved at the end because so many plot points are left floating in the ether.
Roger Deakins did the cinematography so there are some stunning visuals - it's a nice film to look at. Yet the sense of setting, such a strong component of the novel, is absent. Tartt provided a realistic sense of 2000s New York and the intricacies of modern Amsterdam, the setting becomes a character. The Goldfinch will inevitably be a case study on the do's and don'ts of adaptation. Maybe there's a better film in here somewhere.