The Goldfinch is the feature film adaptation of the popular Donna Tart novel by the same name. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do its source material any justice.
The challenges of adapting a well-received novel to the big screen are many. The biggest challenge is of course condensing the depth of the narrative into the run time of a feature length film. There is simply no way a film script will be able to recreate the detail and impact of language from a novel. As a result, film adaptations have to take short cuts. For novels based on films, the filmmaker’s decisions regarding how to handle the “short cuts” can have a significant impact on whether or not the final product is any good.
The Goldfinch is just one of many films which struggles with this challenge. Even if you didn’t know that it was based on an award-winning novel, you can tell how the plot seems to be missing something. The story itself is interesting, but ultimately fails because the film is lacking in those minute connecting details which would be present in the novel. It is the same issue we’ve seen countless times before in novel-based films. Filmmakers who aren’t willing to simplify the story in some regard end up being overtaken by the challenge of stitching everything together with the comparatively limited storytelling ability of film.
And so films like The Goldfinch become less about telling a story naturally as they are concerned about setting up the next scene. The very beginning of the film sets us up on the wrong foot. A voiceover narration by the main character Theo tells us about his regrets and trepidations. He is distressed and seems to be in a bad place, and yet this is the first time we meet him. It is the film promising to fill us in on the details. It is telling us about what it will tell us about. I hate when writers do this. Rather than leaving the audience to their own devices, we are herded like cattle and the film is already setting up certain expectations which it will most likely not be able to meet.
It is also an old-fashioned approach to the narrative. How many films in the past have you seen which use this same in media res technique? It’s been done ad nauseum. Indeed, The Goldfinch is a film which focuses on old things. So perhaps in that regard, the film’s narrative is at least fitting. But it does not do the audience or the novel on which it is based any favors. The story is told on two levels - one of our main character Theo as a boy, and one as he is grown up. The film jumps back and forth between these timelines, allowing some context to seep through, but otherwise muddling what should be a rather straightforward plot.
Young Theo is involved in a tragedy when his mother is killed at a bombing in a museum. In the panic and confusion, Theo is convinced by a dying man to steal Carel Fabritius’ 17th century painting, The Goldfinch. The film follows Theo’s life after the death of his mother as his life becomes chaotic and uncertain. Meanwhile, we meet the older Theo, and we discover the toll his tragic life has had on this young man. The Goldfinch itself becomes the center of what drives him and dictates his life as he grows up.
From the beginning of the film, the story is very tragic, and it never lets up. Few good things seem to happen to Theo along the way of growing up, but much of this is due to decisions he makes on his own. In this manner, it is hard to feel anything for him except for sorrow that his lot in life was a difficult one. Adult Theo takes advantage of others, and is in many ways the mirror image of all of those people who have harmed him as he grew up. The film tries to make some sort of sentimental statement about the fleetness of life, but the film is more focused on ramping up the gloom and doom than it is about finding good in the bad.
I mean, you would think a two and a half hour runtime would be more than sufficient to clearly establish messages and themes. But it isn’t. The reality is the film’s runtime is mismanaged. Too much of the film’s screentime is devoted to the younger Theo versus the older one. Scenes with the younger Theo seem to drag on or otherwise focus on details or ambience which are not necessary. This is especially true because it shortchanges the later parts of the film when there is more going on and where the extra screen time could have been better utilized to flush out more of those details.
The muddled direction of the film is another example of the difficulty involved when transporting a complicated novel from page to screen. John Crawley’s work on Brooklyn may have made it seem like he had the skills necessary to bring the prestigious novel to life, but somewhere along the way he loses his translation. The film feels like it is trying too hard to bring the emotion of the novel. We don’t need the quick flashbacks of tragedy, or the utilization of slow motion applied in particularly depressing moments. The events that occur are enough on their own to relay the necessary emotion. It is as if Crawley does not trust his audience. Excessive screen time spent on playing emotion could have been better utilized to fill in some of the missing details in the plot.
The acting too leaves a bit to be deserved. Ansel Elgort is only in less than half of the film, and in that time he isn’t quite able to create a convincing character. The audience never really gets to understand Theo. Is he supposed to be cool, calm, and collected? Does he not really care about others and is using them for his own gain? At the climax of the film when everything seems to be falling in around him, he is emotional and angry. Yet earlier when confronted with moments where he could do something about his life, he seemed distant and unconcerned. The rest of the cast isn’t bad, per se, but the film has so many moments of prolonged silence we just get to watch them stare at each other.
One area where The Goldfinch stands out is the production. The film at the very least looks prestigious, fully committing to a love of paintings and antiques which the story revolves around. Roger Deakins is cinematographer, and he brings a rich, dreamy quality to the picture. It is unfortunate that the film could not back this up with a worthwhile story. What results is a movie that feels empty and by-the-numbers. For a story with so much drama and emotion, the film comes off as shockingly human-less. The Goldfinch is classic Oscar-bait, as well as a firm warning to those other filmmakers who are not fully prepared for the challenges of adopting a beloved novel to the big screen.
What's Bad: Plot does not translate well from the novel - missing important details, some suspect acting, at times over dramatic, direction is not disciplined, long and drawn out, storytelling method leaves a lot to be desired, too much time spent in inconsequential moments.