Published in 2013, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch went on to earn best-selling status, along with the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. It’s a book that — it seems — entranced readers, including future cast member Sarah Paulson (Ocean’s 8), with its tale of a boy in conflict after a soul-shattering event changes the course of his life. It makes a great deal of sense, then, to adapt the book for film so that greater audiences can enjoy it. There is, however, a funny thing about art, a thing which makes it connect for some and misfire with others. It’s an unquantifiable, unpredictable aspect which creates a level playing field between the Masters and Beginners, between being something considered a treasure worthy of restoration and protection, of possessing something timeless, and being a thing which merely shines for the moment. Confoundingly, director John Crowley’s The Goldfinch fits into the latter. The cast is sublime, the cinematography is gorgeous, the costuming beautiful, and direction compelling, yet something is missing to give it that *thing*. It’s a frustration, to be sure, considering so much of the film is in examination of how creating something and passing something down, gives it value.
On an average morning in New York, Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) and his mother (Hailey Wist) pop into the Metropolitan Museum of Art before a meeting at school. Before leaving, Theo’s mother leaves him for a moment to look at another painting when a bombing occurs. Confused and in shock, Theo fails to find his mother, but manages to rescue Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch.” As he bounces from home to home, city to city, time to time, Theo never lets go of the painting, keeping it secret and hidden. Despite his constant struggle to live apart from that terrible day, Theo remains anchored to a pain he constantly relives. Things only grow worse when Theo, as an adult (Ansel Elgort), learns that the truth of his secret may soon be thrust into the light of day.
As a writer, the realization that words fail to express a thought is a kind of horror. With no other way to communicate, a writer is left mute and purposeless. So confounding is The Goldfinch to have rendered such a reaction. On paper, everything about the film suggests prestige. Crowley is an accomplished director known for Brooklyn (2015). The adapter, Peter Straughan, is responsible for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and Frank (2014). Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins executed work expected from a man of his skill and expertise. Though the film hangs on the duel performance of Fegley and Elgort as Theo, a responsibility the actors manage with exceptional ease, The Goldfinch is an absolute ensemble piece, in which parts big and small are played by a cavalcade of remarkable talent: Nicole Kidman, Jeffery Wright, Paulson, Luke Wilson, Finn Wolfhard, Willa Fitzgerald, and more. This doesn’t even take into account the beautiful costume design by Kasia Walicka-Maimone (A Most Violent Year) or the lovely score by Trevor Gureckis (Bloodline). This resume-esque listing of components within The Goldfinch suggest a film bound for awards glory, yet something is profoundly missing from the experience as a whole. Like the painting at the center of the tale, The Goldfinch is a composite image, made from a series of individual strokes of color, of varying shades, of differing materials. For the painting, the end result is considered a masterpiece which currently hangs at The Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. For the film, the end result is cold and disaffecting, potentially an accidental result of too well communicating Theo’s internal isolation.
The emotional crux of The Goldfinch is an understandable one. It would be bad enough that Theo has his childhood abruptly ripped from him, but he must also contend with a staggering amount of survivor’s guilt over the event. This is something the audience understands within the first five-minutes of the film, even as Theo proclaims over and over that his mother’s death is his fault. The fact that Theo then grows to work in restoration makes sense, as it’s a means of making the past as new. Young Theo is presented as someone who sees the emotional value of the objects owned by prior generations. In contrast, where adult Theo begins to get into trouble, is presenting the restorations as the originals and not as fixed pieces. This, much like his reluctance to relieve himself off the painting, speaks to a larger aspect of Theo’s refusal to accept the past. As pieces, the journey of young Theo post-explosion to adult Theo in peak-crisis is a fascinating one. As mentioned above, the trouble is that there’s an omnipresent absence of something. To the larger theme of growing up and accepting, the painting itself is the physical representation of the emotional journey Theo’s aboard. Except, even when many answers are provided to the audience, there are so many left to interpretation that the lack of concreteness creates a boundless deafness upon the conclusion.
Though this is a lingering aspect of Tartt’s novel which presents only Theo’s perspective, there seems to be little reason for why the final shot of the film is meant to be affecting. Or why Theo’s relationship to his mother should be juxtaposed against Kidman’s Mrs. Barbour with adult Theo. Again, an argument can be made for Mrs. Barbour’s intended material surrogacy, but their interactions lack the warmth of his true mother. The stories resulting in the most clear narrative and emotional journeys are in the section involving Theo and both young/adult Boris (Wolfhard and Aneurin Bardnard respectively). The audience gets to see that their friendship blossoming is touching, the act of severing is deeply painful, and their eventual rekindling is more beautiful than deus ex convenient. Their interactions are only a small segment of a longer, drawn-out tale which asks the audience to hang in with nary a promise or guarantee.
One of the great benefits for seeing a film on home video over the theater is the easy access to bonus features which can, on purpose or by accident, shed light on the things that don’t make sense or expound on the things that do. Available on all formats is the 8+ min featurette “The Real Goldfinch” which explores both Fabritius’s painting, as well as how Crowley was able to make a believable copy of the famous work. As any worthy treasure is prone to have history, this short featurette offers interesting teases and tidbits about the discordant materials used to create the piece. The theory that “The Goldfinch” is actually incomplete is partially fascinating to consider within the larger scope of art and how art is viewed and revered. For fans of the novel or cinema in general, the nearly 13-min featurette “The Goldfinch Unbound” is where you’ll want to begin. Here is where you get insight from several of the cast members and principle crew on the adaptation process and what the novel means to them. Of particular interest is the fact that the casting of adult versus young were not always achieved unilaterally. Sometimes the child informed the adult performer and vice versa. Considering the vital importance of each role on the overall dramatic needs of the film, this particular aspect is fascinating.
The Goldfinch Home Release Bonus Features
The Goldfinch Blu-ray contains the following special features:
- The Goldfinch Unbound
- The Real Goldfinch
- Deleted Scenes – Nearly 17-minutes featuring commentary from director John Crowley
The Goldfinch DVD contains the following special features:
- The Real Goldfinch
Available on digital November 19th, 2019.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD December 3rd, 2019.
Final (Film) Score: 3 out of 5.