The Goldfinch (2019)

Review
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What a bizarre little movie The Goldfinch is.

Based on the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 novel of the same name, John Crowley’s ambitious adaption is never able to translate the magic Donna Tartt conveyed through her prose.  A classic case of lost in translation, or perhaps studio tinkering, The Goldfinch feels constantly out of its depth, despite the worthy ingredients its peppered with.

From the opening moments of Ansel Elgort’s musings and the imagery of an art museum reduced to nothing but debris and a smokey haze, The Goldfinch states its case that this will be a dramatic feature heavy on emotional manipulation.  And that would be all well and good if the story was one we felt connected to in the slightest.

A straight-forward story told in a roundabout way, The Goldfinch‘s protagonist is young Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley), a 13-year-old boy who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing attack in an art museum.  With his dead-beat father (Luke Wilson) out for the count, Theo is welcomed by the family of a close school friend, forming a particularly strong bond with his friend’s mother (Nicole Kidman) in the process.

Melodrama runs rampant though and Theo’s seemingly perfect surrounding is uprooted when long-absent dad rears his degenerate head and ships him off back home to the rather depressing landscape of Las Vegas.  Here, Theo meets Ukrainian/Russian cocktail Boris (Finn Wolfhard, chewing the scenery like a pro beyond his years), and the film, already having overstayed its welcome and thrown enough characters at us to keep tabs on, devotes more time than it needs to showcasing the duo’s drug-heavy, alcohol-dependent friendship; this plot strand seemingly in place to justify why the grown-up Theo (eventually played by Elgort) is so heavily into substances.

By the time Theo is ready to run-away from Vegas – with his dad’s trashy girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) more than happy to see the back of him – Crowley’s overstuffed drama has barely even addressed the titular 1654 artwork that Theo stole from the museum among the destructive rubble.  It would appear that the painting was sentimental to his late mother, but the Peter Straughan-penned script doesn’t portray that as clearly as it deserved to, and by the time the film focuses on Theo as an adult, where he’s become a respected figure within the antique art scene, our patience has long worn thin.

The back-end of the film’s rather insufferable 149 minute running time devotes itself to Theo and his reunion with Boris (Aneurin Barnard), and how the painting sends them to Amsterdam on a mission to retrieve it from a gang of thugs.  Yes, somehow this dramatic feature opts to shift into a momentary thriller about the shady underworld of art-financed crime – and we’re supposed to buy it.

Though the film is overly long, thematically disjointed, confusingly acted – Oakley and Elgort as the different-aged Theo’s have little continuity between the two (aside from the fact they both wear glasses) – and questionable in its depiction of its timeline (apparently only a decade-or-so passes in Theo growing up but this results in Kidman’s stylish mother ageing to the point of grandmother make-up), The Goldfinch at least looks the part with lavish production value and gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Academy Award-winner Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall, No Country For Old Men).

With such an intricate plot perhaps a series format would’ve served this story better as there’s no denying the potential on hand to deliver an investing narrative, but any of that magic Tartt was able to conjure through her words is squandered here in favour of an “Oscar bait” production that fails to convey any of the importance the original material had.

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