As a child, Theo (Oakes Fegley) had a close relationship with his mother. He’s a bright kid with a promising future. That is until one day, when a visit to the art museum ends with a terrorist bombing that takes his mother’s life. He ends up at the home of the wealthy Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman) and her family, until his deadbeat father Larry (Luke Wilson) and his girlfriend Xander (Sarah Paulson) come and retrieve him.
As an adult, Theo (Ansel Elgort) continues to struggle with the loss. He has become partners with his childhood mentor Hobie (Jeffery Wright) selling reproductions of priceless antiques. But his life continues to feel empty because of the trauma he experienced. And throughout all these hard times, one thing has reminded him of this: The Goldfinch, a famous painting that Theo took among the wreckage and has hid from the world ever since.
The Goldfinch is the latest from director John Crowley since his big Oscar contender Brooklyn almost four years ago. With this, along with an all-star cast, it’s easy to see that they were going for Oscar consideration. It has all the ingredients of an award-bait film, and it often feels like this while watching it. It tries to hard to achieve the greatness of its source material. Unfortunately, that ultimately becomes its undoing.
The Goldfinch is the very definition of a watered-down adaptation of a novel, as the film struggles to condense its almost 800 page source material into a reasonable runtime. The end result feels like five different movies all smashed together, all with very different tones that make it confusing how exactly we’re supposed to react to each depressing thing that happens to the main character.
Maybe if this had been a television miniseries as opposed to a film, the entire story would have been able to develop properly. Even at two and a half hours, it feels like nothing develops. The character motivations and arcs are never clearly stated, so we don’t really have any idea where the story is going or if the characters are developing. By the end of the movie, it feels like nothing has happened.
This is perpetuated by the film’s very, very bad script. Penned by Peter Straughan, who doesn’t have the greatest track record with screenplays outside of his Oscar nominated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, spins a story that feels more like a series of art history/philosophy lessons than an actual movie. The characters sound more like their lecturing to the audience rather than having real conversations.
Despite the all-star cast, nobody is in top form here. Everyone in this film is either overly depressed or wooden. It’s hard to tell what kind of direction they were under, but they don’t feel natural. The only performance really worth some praise is Finn Wolfhard, who appears to be doing everything imaginable not to get typecast as Mike from Stranger Things. At least he makes the film a little bit enjoyable when he finally arrives.
The Goldfinch aims for a heart-wrenching drama, but crumbles under the weight of its own ambitions. It fails to find a suitable way to translate its multi-layered source material into a tight, well-paced narrative, opting to focus only on the story while disregarding any of its morally complex messages. The cast only feel like selling points to get people in the theater, never once feeling like they actually become their characters. Maybe the only lesson here is that some things were not meant to be adapted to the screen.