The Goldfinch stumbles in the transition from page to screen
Thinking about The Goldfinch I am reminded of an equally ambitious, if somewhat more narratively successful book-to-film adaptation: Cloud Atlas. In adapting what is, for my money, the most impossible book to translate to screen, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer created a film that functions, but mostly as a companion piece to the source material, rather than existing in its own filmic vacuum. Yet the anthological nature of the book lends itself to what is an oddball film that hits every color of the tonal rainbow. For those of us who read David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas worked. For those who didn’t, well, it’s a mixed-to-negative bag, generally speaking.
I wonder if this is the same case for The Goldfinch. Adapted from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, this narratively ambitious film feels like it might have value for fans of the book. Having gone into things totally blind, I can only attest to the fact that for me, The Goldfinch felt messy, poorly paced, and indicative of having been based on a book that I fear may also bore me now that the film has spoiled the bulk of its plot developments. Shame, because John Crowley’s film has me convinced that the book is as fantastic as its reputation indicates.
The story begins at an odd place. A sort of “you’re probably wondering how I got here” piece, only without a good sense of “here” or “I.” Ansel Elgort broods from behind a well-tailored suit while lining up a concerning amount of pills on a flat surface. “Hmm, cocaine,” remarked the chatty older gentleman in the seat behind me, as he continued to unwrap and crunch his way through an entire bag of cough drops.
“They’re sugar free!” he exclaimed to his pals before I moved to a better seat while wondering if cocaine comes in pill form.
Before we get a sense of what’s going on, we flashback to our lead character’s youth. His name is Theo, and he is now played by Oakes Fegley. An explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art kills Theo’s mother, and with his absentee a Dad (Luke Wilson) nowhere to be found, Theo is essentially made an orphan. He is placed into the care of the Barbour family, a very rich unit headed by the easily mischaracterized Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), whose children range from spoiled to very spoiled. Things are tense for Theo, but he finds companionship in the form of an antiques restorer named Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) who lost his significant other in the same attack.
From here, a lot happens, but not a lot happens. Theo is bounced around to multiple locations with multiple people, while harboring a secret that the movie takes way too long to even establish (and which I won’t spoil here). This is intercut with scenes from Theo’s present day, where he works as Hobie’s salesman while nursing an increasingly concerning drug habit.
One gets the sense that the onslaught of plot works a lot better in text form, where the reader can see how these events inform Theo’s growth as a man. As a film, however, the dense plot mostly feels hollow, and the maddeningly disparate structure shoots most character development in the foot. Even when the film resolves and all of the plot elements are given due explanation as to why each had to occur in order to get here, it still feels like a lot of wasted time. I am unsure of what the point of the story ultimately is. What is the thesis? What is being said?
My best guess is “Life, man. Ya know?”
The information release system at the heart of the narrative is very much to blame. We often come down hard on movies that lazily exposit before showing us why that exposition was necessary. Since film is a visual medium, we’re right to judge this process. It’s lazy to simply tell when you have the ability to show. The Goldfinch tries to buck this criticism by showing us a scene with elements that lack context, and then lazily exposit as to why it all mattered after the fact. It’s a clever trick for sure, but it’s as transparent as they come. Whether the information comes before or after its application is irrelevant if it’s nonetheless delivered in a sloppy, tired way.
Where The Goldfinch succeeds is in the performances. When dealing with such poorly structured, genre-hopping material, there’s always the risk of the actors failing to find the correct tone. Luckily that is not the case here, and the strangeness of the script/direction serves to highlight how good the performers are. Ansel Elgort, in conjunction with Oakes Fegley, create a strong characterization for Theo. It’s not often that this occurs when a role is shared between multiple actors in a single movie. Sure, the film is a mess, but Theo is complete. Kudos as well to Jeffrey Wright, who can pretty much do anything, as well as Nicole Kidman, who I’m finding it harder and harder to tell if she’s behind old age makeup, de-aging software, or any of a number of facial alteration tricks being deployed in Hollywood as of late. Well, no matter. Her role isn’t big but she imbues it with feeling, despite the fact that her Mrs. Barbour is meant to be a bit detached. Finn Wolfhard plays a kid with a Russian accent. You can do with that what you may. I enjoyed him.
Your mileage may vary as to how well all of this works for you, but I think it’s a film worth thinking about. I, for one, will be picking up the book next time I swing by the library.
Libraries are awesome, by the way.
The Goldfinch opens in Philly theaters today.