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New Release Review - THE GOLDFINCH

the goldfinch review
A young boy steals a painting from the rubble of the museum explosion that killed his mother.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: John Crowley

Starring: Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright,  Ashleigh Cummings

the goldfinch poster


Whenever a screen adaptation of a beloved novel is announced, a segment of its readers will claim that to adapt it for the screen is a folly as it's "unfilmable". The unfilmable novel is a myth that has been propagated and advanced by countless awful adaptations of literary works. The problems usually arise when filmmakers attempt to film the novel, rather than turning the novel into a movie. The worst literary adaptations are usually those which try to transfer every page to the screen, cramming 700 words into two hours. The best simply use the source book as a blueprint, and often bear little resemblance to the original novel (read any of the novels Hitchcock adapted and it can often seem like the only element to survive the translation was the title). Director John Crowley's adaptation of Donna Tartt's Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Goldfinch is the worst kind, a futile attempt to transfer a hefty tome filled with multiple subplots into little more than the running time of a World Cup final that goes to penalties.

the goldfinch review

The epic story begins with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art blown to pieces by a terrorist bombing. Among the few survivors is 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley), who spots a painting, Carel Fabritius's 1654 creation 'The Goldfinch', lying among the rubble. With his dying breaths, an elderly man advises Theo to take the painting for safekeeping, assuming the boy will do the right thing and return it to the museum. Theo takes the painting, but fails to tell anyone he has done so.

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The crux of The Goldfinch is a story about art theft, about how art belongs to the world and shouldn't be shut away in private collections, or in this case, locked away in a New York storage facility for years. Yet rather than putting this front and centre, Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan obfuscate the issue, burying this main plot under the collapsed rubble of a dozen subplots that rely far too heavily on implausible coincidences to tie them all together.

the goldfinch review

Following the explosion, which claims the life of his mother, Theo is taken in by the Barbour's, an affluent Manhattan family who treat him as one of their own. The movie tells us at several points that the Barbour's matriarch, Samantha (Nicole Kidman), has a special connection with the boy, yet we never see any real evidence of this. This is a recurring issue with the film, as restricted by their running time, Crowley and Straughan fill in loose strands and backstory by simply having characters explain things to each other in Cliffs notes monologues. The Goldfinch ends with one character describing an incredibly important moment to another, and we're left scratching our heads as to why a movie would refuse to show us the pivotal moment in question.

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As Theo becomes a young adult, Ansel Elgort steps into the role, and thanks to Elgort's stiffness, the character becomes even less human, often resembling a cardboard standee wheeled onto set to test if the lights are set up correctly while the real actor waits in his trailer. It's not all Elgort's fault, as the movie never fleshes out Theo. For instance, no time is ever devoted to how he feels about losing his mother. This is but one important detail that the film sweeps aside in favour of concentrating on subplots that really don't need so much time devoted to them. When a young Theo finds himself in the care of his feckless father (Luke Wilson in a role that seems likes it was written for his brother Owen) and his trashy girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) - a pair of over the top working class Middle America stereotypes - he is transplanted to a ghost estate on the outskirts of Las Vegas. There he befriends Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a young Russian boy who introduces him to the joys of drugs and alcohol. This segment of the film seems to go on and on like we're on some uncontrollable LSD trip ourselves, yet it's mostly just repeating the same stoner comedy hijinks ad nauseum. Wolfhard's Russian accent is bad enough, but when an adult Boris returns as played by Aneurin Barnard, the character really descends into "compare the meerkat" offensiveness. Another subplot that goes nowhere involves Theo going full Charlie Brown and becoming obsessed with a little red-haired girl who also survived the explosion. And then there's his marriage to Samantha's daughter (Willa Fitzgerald), which is pitched as a marriage of convenience, yet at the same time seems ridiculously inconvenient. I could go on describing the many pointless digressions The Goldfinch takes but my review would end up longer than the novel.

the goldfinch review

At one point Theo finds himself taken in by Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antiques dealer whose same-sex relationship with a victim of the bombing is left ambiguous here because, you know, Hollywood homophobia, which leaves us asking questions that could be simply answered by the movie telling us he's gay rather than hiding the issue for fear of offending the sort of people who would never watch a movie like The Goldfinch in the first place. Demonstrating the difference between a genuine antique and a reproduction, Hobie talks about how the real deal has flaws and bears the wear and tear of time. "The difference is life," he concludes. Thanks chiefly to Roger Deakins' cinematography, The Goldfinch is a well polished reproduction, but it's far from genuine. There's no life here.

The Goldfinch is in UK/ROI cinemas September 27th.


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