The Goldfinch Review: A strong case for the novel being “unadaptable”
Often labeled as unadaptable, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel from author Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, had its first film adaptation just hit theaters this past weekend. While I’ve never read the novel, so I can’t comment on whether or not the film fits that label, The Goldfinch is ultimately an absolute bore and so confounding at times that ends up being one of the dullest movie viewing experiences of 2019.
The film follows the life of Theo (Oakes Fegley/Ansel Elgort), a wealthy boy who becomes fascinated with a painting of a Goldfinch he takes from a museum after a terrorist attack that kills his mother. Although Theo comes from wealth, he lives a poor life as he rarely finds love from those around him and misfortune around every corner. The one thing that has stayed true, though, is his fascination with The Goldfinch and throughout his life, Theo ponders what it means to him as he deals with continuous highs and lows with different people he meets. Or at least, that’s I think that what The Goldfinch is about.
Frankly, this film is absolutely terrible at telling its story as it lacks the sufficient details to give any depth to its characters and transitions between Theo’s younger and older self with very little connectivity. It’s almost as if each character, outside of Theo, was given one personality trait to hide the fact that they don’t have much depth to them. Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurin Barnard) is the quirky Eastern European who acts as comic relief, Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) acts as a father figure to give him “deep” advice, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) acts a mother figure to be compassionate towards Theo, and Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings) is meant to be a relatable figure for Theo – even though she isn’t in the movie much. Everyone else can easily be labeled as unlikable and the film never tries to redeem them in the slightest bit.
The worst part, though, is that it’s hard to connect to these characters as there’s either too long of a break from when we see characters or such little given about them initially that when they reappear, it has zero impact. For example, there’s a point where Pippa and Theo are reflecting on their lives and Pippa mentions how much she relates to him because of them both losing someone in the explosion. This moment is incredibly botched as she’s not in the film much so there’s no impact to the moment and, really, they’re only relatable because of their situation – not much on a personal level. Even when the film attempts to connect Theo’s past and present life through him reuniting with characters and thinking back to troubling times, there’s no impact to anything and it makes for an uneventful watch.
The dialogue is also incredibly unengaging and oozes this pretentious, metaphorical tone that’s hard to connect with as a viewer. Characters constantly speak to each other as if they are about to deliver some kind of long-wined metaphor and it absolutely tanks any of the energy or charisma characters could have – especially Theo. While Egort, and pretty much everyone else, is trying to elevate the material, their attempts are constantly thwarted by the very snarky and pretentious dialogue they are forced to say. The younger cast especially suffers as they barely come off like real kids and are only given a few moments to legitimately act something like their age. Honestly, Fegley is actually better than the script warrants and he makes Theo a very likable character and someone that viewers can enjoy. His performance contains enough maturity and light-hearted humor to make audiences care enough about Theo to make The Goldfinch watchable. I’ll even say that Wolfhard puts in a much more fun performance than the film deserves, but his Eastern European accent is definitely a little over-the-top at times and loses it’s luster fast.
The film also completely botches it story beats and never gives viewers a strong enough through-line to make them feel as if they are progressing towards a certain end. Why is Theo so obsessed with The Goldfinch painting – frankly, outside of it being the last thing that reminds him of his mother, I really don’t know. The film gets viewers so lost in all of its philosophical talk and trying to connect its past and present that it’s easy to forget the point of Theo’s story or what’s even happening. By the time the film forcibly attempts to be a crime thriller that’s completely anti-climactic, you’re completely checked out on what’s happening. Not to mention, the score is incredibly inconsistent and distracting, so it makes The Goldfinch more of tonal mess than it already is and is just as painful as the film’s already tortuous runtime that viewers will feel every second of.
Rather than being the thought-provoking, philosophical feat it thinks it’s being; The Goldfinch is just another film falling completely flat on its face as it begs for award recognition. While I’m not fully sure if Tartt’s novel is truly unadaptable, this adaptation definitely makes the case for that claim to be true.