In today’s world, you can always identify the next big American novel not by how it is lauded by the critics, but by how many airport shops you see it in. If you’ve stepped foot in an airport in the past six years, you’ve probably seen the cover of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” in shop windows next to the magazines and overpriced snacks. When the book first came out in 2013, it spent more than half a year on the New York Times bestseller list, nabbing a number of awards including a Pulitzer Prize. With the amount of success and number of airports the book is stocked in, it makes sense that a film adaptation was bound to follow.
“The Goldfinch” follows the young Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) as his life unfolds after surviving a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that killed his mother. Intercutting between the adult Theo, played by a perennially baby-faced Ansel Elgort, and flashbacks to his childhood, the film weaves a somber and complicated tale of the loss of childhood innocence, steeped in the world of antiques and art. The item tying Theo’s timeline together is Dutch artist Carel Fabritius’ painting, “The Goldfinch,” which Theo stole during the chaos of the bombing’s aftermath.
With the book clocking in at 784 pages, adapting Theo’s life into a two and a half hour film is no easy task. Yet despite the film’s more dragging moments, director John Crowley does a decent job at telling a coherent, (mostly) well-paced story that stays on track with the book. The technique of intercutting the chronology of Theo’s life was a smart choice on screenwriter Peter Straughan’s part, because it made the story well-suited for its cinematic medium.
“The Goldfinch” works best when it focuses on its themes of childhood and friendship. The relationships Theo has with his mentor James “Hobie” Hobart (an always well-casted Jeffrey Wright) and his childhood best friend Boris (played by both a shaggy-haired Finn Wolfhard and a more groomed, but still shaggy-haired, Aneurin Barnard) keep the story emotionally grounded even when the film turns into a crime thriller toward the end of its third act. The whole plotline of the stolen painting almost detracts from the main focus of following Theo’s life in the film. After spending most of the film chronicling Theo’s life, the third act revolving around getting the painting back from an underground arts dealer seems rushed and shoehorned into the plot, seemingly added for the sole purpose of making the title of the film more relevant again.
But when it is not revolving around the wild “Goldfinch” chase, the film really shines. One of the best segments in the film is young Theo’s time with Boris, as watching their friendship develop as they bond over their negligent and abusive families is raw and poignant. Even though the film compresses the duo’s complex relationship, it does what it can in its limited time, and it does it sufficiently. The scene in which Theo begs Boris to run away with him is so well done by the two adolescents that somewhere out there, Jacob Tremblay is shaking — although, at times, Wolfhard’s Eastern European accent is stronger than a bottle of vodka, but you can’t knock the kid for really trying.
The same treatment, however, was not given to Theo’s relationships with the female figures in his life. Nicole Kidman, whose character stands in as a maternal figure during Theo’s adolescence, pops in now and then to dimensionalize Theo’s humanity, but for the most part, you keep forgetting Nicole Kidman is in the movie. Luke Wilson’s brief time as Theo’s emotionally abusive father is more memorable, even though Wilson has about half the amount of screen time as Kidman. Theo’s romantic relationships with his cheating fiance (Willa Fitzgerald) and unrequited love (Ashleigh Cummings) have so little to do with his life that both characters could be removed from the story and nothing would change.
Stuck between Oscar bait and pre-existing intellectual property turned into a box office hit, “The Goldfinch” is in an odd position of trying to satisfy both genres, but not succeeding in either. Despite the film’s flaws, “The Goldfinch” is a skilled, faithful (as it can be) adaptation that makes its award-winning parent proud. And when you remember that it was adapted from a 784-page book, it’s downright good.
Julie Lim covers film. Contact her at [email protected].