Every once in a while, a movie hands its audience a kind of coded confession of guilt on a silver platter. In The Goldfinch, that moment arrives early on, in the backroom of a Greenwich Village antique furniture shop. Here, a sad-eyed antiques dealer, Hobie (a fantastic Jeffery Wright), explains the difference between two chairs, both identical to the untrained eye. One is authentic, he notes — a hand-made original. The other, a reproduction, machine-made. And only by getting up close and really looking at them, by running your hands over their surfaces, can you tell the difference. On it’s own it’s one of the film’s best scenes, but it also proves to be a pretty good metaphor for The Goldfinch, a proudly prestige literary drama that looks handsome and presentable and important from a distance (especially from the phenomenal first trailer), but whose fraudulence becomes clear pretty quickly once you’re planted in front of it for the two and a half hour long haul. It’s an empty approximation of art. And unlike a fake vintage chair, there isn’t really a basic utility for this imitation.
Director John Crowley, who’s following up the sensitive and transporting Brooklyn, isn’t merely replicating a general artistic design. He’s working from a specific blueprint: a 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by author Donna Tartt. The book, a vivid but at times ridiculous neo-Dickensian epic that borrows its title from the 17th-century Carel Fabritius painting at its core, is one of those novels everyone seems to sensibly insist is un-adaptable — its nearly eight-hundred pages of narrative spanning a couple decades and continents, that also touches upon everything from terrorism to Golden Age Dutch paintings to Glenn Gould. Like plenty of hefty and acclaimed bestsellers, the book has been celebrated less for its plotting than for its detours and language, for its storytelling not its story. But on screen, The Goldfinch offers little but the hows and whys, falling into that common adaptation pitfall of fidelity without purpose; even if you haven’t read Tartt’s sprawling work, you may sense an absence. This is one of those page-to-screen practices that gives off the persistent impression, that feeling that some sense of wealth is being lost in translation.
What Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan bring that’s a change from the book is a new broken up structure. Straughan rips out the spine of Tartt’s novel and rearranges its vertebrae until the story can hardly stand up on its own. The first segment introduces us to a long and handsome twenty-something named Theo (Ansel Elgort) as he sits in an Amsterdam hotel room and contemplates suicide. From there, it whisks us back years earlier, to a thirteen-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley) who has just lost his mother in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a random and senseless tragedy that Theo has always internalized as his own fault. Straughan’s script appropriates some of the internal meditations from Tartt’s novel, using them as voice-over underlining the themes of psychology rather dully and not fully effective. Still, at least we’re getting some sense of what’s going on upstairs. While Fegley plays Theo with mannered introversion which is pretty effective, Elgort doesn’t bring much. And maybe that’s just good continuity casting, as Theo is often only defined by his trauma and grief; a near precocious personality vacuum at times.
After the tragedy, Theo ends up staying with a friend of his mother’s, Mrs. Barbour (an understated Nicole Kidman), becoming like a fifth child in her posh home. But before long he’s then ripped from this relative sanctuary and into the clutches of his estranged, cartoonishly abysmal father (Luke Wilson) and his Vicodin-popping girlfriend (Sarah Paulson), who take him off to the deserted desert outskirts of Las Vegas. From there we continue to jump back and forth to the present day, where Theo has become an emotionally constipated New York businessman and the protégé to Wright’s kindly appraiser. Characters, like a fellow survivor of the blast, Pippa (Aimee Laurence as a girl, Ashleigh Cummings as a woman), weave in and out, introduced and reintroduced as needed, but ultimately feel empty. Which is like a lot of the supporting characters here, sure, some are brought to life well by their performances (Wright, Kidman and Aneurin Barnard stand out), but they’re all bring empty on the inside.
Much of the film’s natural plot developments often seem farcical, and even some of the pointed moments feel empty (the entirety of the romance elements in the film couldn’t fall any more flat). It’s weird the first time someone from Theo’s childhood instantly recognizes him as an adult — it’s ridiculous when it happens again after a virtual stranger clocks him on a New York City street. This is a story fascinated by the ways in which people learn to disguise themselves, and a more nuanced telling of it might have explored Theo’s failure of that. In a movie that confuses post-traumatic flashbacks for genuine depth, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that everyone can see right through him. But all that lies under the surface is a couple of mixed bag montages. Set to two different Radiohead songs, which are doing some of the heavy lifting, the moments where the montages work is when Roger Deakins’ cinematography is providing lush images, the moments it doesn’t is when it relies on character.
I feel it’s important to say that The Goldfinch is not an abject failure: There are some solid performances, especially from Jeffery Wright; K.K. Barrett’s production design delivers a museum-like beauty and polish; Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costume design is stunning. But most of all, a near saving grace, is the work from cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins washes The Goldfinch in warm shades of upper-crust orange and a Manhattan blue, all containing a creamy clarity of dream-like quality. His compositions, like always, are etched into my mind with much of his imagery forever long-lasting. He brings a much needed elegance to moments that can be dry and dull. And while there is moments of striking elegance in The Goldfinch, they’re sadly surrounded by a deeply underdeveloped, mostly hollow film. It sadly disappointed me to see the talents of many wasted in this hollow, morbid adaptation. And while it may have taken the talents to help disguise The Goldfinch, you ultimately don’t need an appraiser’s expert eye to know a fake when you see it.