On a surface level, it’s difficult to determine where it all went so spectacularly wrong with John Crowley’s movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that’s lush with imagery. It couldn’t have been with the actors, a cast of those who have proven themselves unafraid to be vulnerable on screen. It couldn’t have been with cinematographer Roger Deakins, a man whose expert touch makes movies glow brilliantly. It couldn’t have been with the screenwriter Peter Straughn, whose outstanding work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was Oscar-nominated. In theory, everything should have worked. Perhaps the most damning flaw, the one that kept them from achieving anything at all, was relying on book far too heavily. The Dickensian novel gives the cast and crew plenty to work with, almost too much. In their quest to remain faithful to the novel, The Goldfinch loses its true meaning to an avalanche of plot lines and themes and messy dialogue.
The Goldfinch follows the life of Theo (played by Oakes Fegley as a child and Ansel Elgort as an adult), a New Yorker whose life completely changes when he goes with his mother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a bomb goes off. Before he can even fathom what is happening, his mother dies in the explosion, but as he is forced to leave the smoke-filled building, he grabs the 17th-century painting “The Goldfinch” from the ruins and harbors it for the years to come. After the death of his mother, young Theo, emotionally burdened from survivor’s guilt, lives with the family of his wealthy friend Andy Barbour (Ryan Foust). As his stay in their elegant penthouse extends, Theo bonds with Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), mother of Andy, over their shared love of antique furniture. The blossoming happiness inside Theo, however, is soon cut short when Theo’s deadbeat dad Larry (Luke Wilson) shows up and flies Theo to Las Vegas. There, Theo desperately finds himself in the desolate Nevada suburbs, with air that has sand floating through it and yellowing lawns. Luckily, he befriends a boisterous Russian expat named Boris (played by Finn Wolfhard as a child and Aneurin Barnard as an adult) who introduces an impressionable Theo to drugs, alcohol, thievery, girls, and more drugs.
Despite its many flaws, The Goldfinch is beautiful. If nothing else, it is terribly beautiful. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is the one saving grace of the movie. Through careful editing and special attention to the movement of shadows and light, Deakins transformed otherwise dull scenes into something drenched in emotion. You can feel the breath catch in your throat when golden light dances upon the faces of two lovers, when two friends grab on to each other against the hauntingly empty Nevada desert, when a young man contemplates ending his life in the soft darkness of his hotel room. Almost every scene is haloed in gold, creating a sort of cohesiveness that the movie fails to accomplish itself.
Actually, The Goldfinch is not quite so much as a movie, as it is a collage of gorgeous scenes and pictures. The storyline is chaotically put together without any real pattern or purpose. Each scene jumps from memory to memory in Theo’s life, making watching it an experience akin to being in a fever dream. If it counts for anything, the uncut disorder of the plotline kind of makes one feel as though they’ve been smoking the same things that Boris and Theo do.
Peter Struaghnn’s disappointing script attempts to juggle every universal human emotion in each scene, presumably to imitate Tartt’s own exhaustive writing style. He clumsily plays with grief, love, an appreciation for beauty, friendship, adolescence, drugs and every other thing that has ever been experienced by a human being until all these themes get tangled up in some unrecognizable mess. While Tartt’s novel expertly deals with the concept of immortality and the persistence of memory, The Goldfinch allows itself to get distracted from any one meaning and takes on more than it can handle. The disappointing writing not only contributes to a messy plot, but also limits the actors, forcing them to be trapped in dialogue that does not fully capture the emotional range of the characters they embody.
Nicole Kidman is just one of the actors that fell victim to a script that limits her talent, as she portrays Mrs. Barbour, a calm and composed Manhattan socialite. Although the script barely gives Kidman the chance to add much depth to her character, she can be seen working with how little she was given through specific eye movements and body language. In the corners of some scenes, there is even something like a shadow of a smile playing on her face when she speaks to those she’s fond of. Kidman’s small personal touches allow Mrs. Barbour to be one of the most tangible characters on screen. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Ansel Elgort, whose acting seems to be uncooperative with the amount of emotion necessary to play Theo. Even in moments of grief, Elgort never fully commits himself to the scene, sacrificing moments of ugly desperation for simply looking wistfully sad. His colorless acting, though, can be partly blamed on a script that simply does not allow for impactful performances.
The failure of The Goldfinch can ultimately be boiled down to this simple fact: it wasn’t meant to be a movie. The complexity of the plot and language of the novel is muddled in the adaptation, lost to the movie’s overbearing need for the picturesque and the carelessness with which it handles the emotions of the characters. Any grief or love or desperation felt by the characters is transformed into a poor imitation of that emotion, disallowing the movie to fully reach the standards set by the novel.
Ashita Wagh is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl