John Crowley’s The Goldfinch, like the Donna Tartt novel it’s based on, opens as dramatically as possible. There’s a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a mysterious exchange of dialogue between two of the victims, and a masterpiece snatched from the rubble. This intriguing beginning launches a big, messy story that meanders around the U.S. and folds in all kinds of eccentric characters, played here by a talented ensemble that includes such luminaries as Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright, and Luke Wilson. So why does the movie feel like such a dead fish?
Tartt’s 2013 novel is certainly an unwieldy beast, a nearly 800-page tome that split critics and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize. Crowley (whose 2015 Brooklyn was an excellent literary adaptation) has assembled a worthy team to tame it, including the screenwriter Peter Straughan (who turned John le Carré’s titanic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a terrific movie) and the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (who just collected a long-overdue Oscar for Blade Runner 2049). But their efforts are for naught. The film suffers from both an excessive faithfulness to its source and a general failure to translate that material into anything close to a gripping on-screen narrative.
The Goldfinch centers on 13-year-old Theo Decker (played by Oakes Fegley and, as an adult, by Ansel Elgort), who, in the aftermath of the Met bombing that kills his mother, swipes Carel Fabritius’s gorgeous 1654 painting The Goldfinch from the museum walls. For two and a half hours, viewers are shuttled between past and present storylines as Theo recovers from his loss, settles in with a new family, and gets mixed up with high-end art forgers and teen party animals. The stolen masterwork is irrelevant to most of these plot developments. In the book, it looms in the background as a symbol for Theo’s memories of trauma, his love for his mother, and the emotional meaning that humans can attach to the art around them.
But Crowley and Straughan just can’t find a way to communicate all of that on-screen. Theo is a character who locks his feelings away after the death of his mother, and since the script lacks Tartt’s long internal passages, he appears as a blank slate: a polite, quiet, intermittently thoughtful boy who can never quite leave the childhood event that defined him behind. Much of the narration is provided by Elgort, a fitfully charming …
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