Adapting an almost 800-page book for the big screen screams ‘ambition’ more than anything. Sure enough, John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel The Goldfinch is nothing if not ambitious.
The film opens on a grown-up Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort) contemplating suicide. His mother died in a museum bombing when he was a young boy (played by Oakes Fegley) and, although many years have passed, he still blames himself for being the reason she was there in the first place. Theo himself walked away from the incident physically unscathed and took with him a Dutch painting of a goldfinch that he has clung onto ever since. Guilt and grief permeate the two parallel narratives, which explore Theo’s coming-of-age after the loss of his mother and how he grapples with his feelings as an adult.
The film’s biggest weakness is the huge disparity between the pacing of each narrative and between the overall amount of time dedicated to them. The aftermath of the bombing and Theo’s subsequent childhood struggles are explored in great depth and cover around 70% of the film, which leaves relatively little time for the other narrative to develop. This wouldn’t be so detrimental if the final act of Theo’s adult narrative, which sees him attempt to retrieve the now-lost painting with his childhood friend Boris (Aneurin Barnard), wasn’t so fast-paced with heaps of plot shoehorned in. There is a much larger emphasis on Theo’s coming-of-age story over his older self’s search for the painting, and the lack of balance between the two is jarring and awkward.
However, for all its shortcomings, the focus on Theo’s journey through childhood and into adolescence does result in a compelling character study. We see Theo go from guardian to guardian: from the quiet and kind Samantha (Nicole Kidman) to his estranged father Larry (Luke Wilson), as well as time spent with his mentor Hobie (Jeffrey Wright). He forges strong bonds with other kids along the way, most of whom have also suffered loss, including a teenage Boris (Finn Wolfhard). Fegley and Wolfhard have great chemistry and deliver wonderful performances that carry a large proportion of the film. Theo’s identity becomes more faceted – for better and for worse – once he meets and spends time with Boris, and the soundtrack and score reflect this. The mixture of classical pieces, 80s tunes, and atmospheric indie music may seem muddled, but it arguably emphasises the changes in Theo’s personality.
The Goldfinch tries hard to juggle all aspects of its dense source material but ultimately lacks the ability to keep them all up in the air. Nevertheless, Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography and some noteworthy performances are just enough to hold your attention throughout the film’s hefty 2-and-a-half-hour runtime.
My Rating: ★★★
Directed by: John Crowley
Written by: Peter Straughan
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright